SR review: “Red Rex” at Steep Theatre Company

The penultimate piece in Ike Holter's Rightlynd Saga turns a sharp eye on storefront theater itself

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The penultimate piece in Ike Holter’s Rightlynd Saga turns a sharp eye on storefront theater itself

Theater review by Kris Vire

Jessica Dean Turner and Joel Reitsma. Photograph by Lee Miller

I have, shall we say, a mild allergy to theater about the making of theater. The subgenre of playwrights writing plays about playwrights writing plays is large and frequently self-regarding, stuffed with inside-baseball references and the stories we tell ourselves about why we make art. They can take too literally the old adage about “writing what you know,” while forgetting to ask who the writing is for. I imagine civilian theatergoers’ experience with the most navel-gazing of these works is not unlike an average person finding themselves at an insurance adjusters’ convention: it’s full of people opining passionately and at length on processes you don’t really need to know about, as long as your fender-bender is covered.

Yet if anyone has earned the right to get a play about plays out of his system, it’s a writer as prolific as Ike Holter. Not only does he churn out finished scripts like most people deal cards, he’s deeply embedded enough in the specific world Red Rex covers—Chicago non-Equity storefront theater—to know where all the bodies are buried. (Just giving his fictional theater company a name that includes the word red is a mild in-joke.)

Amanda Powell. Photograph by Gregg Gilman

What’s more, Red Rex lives in another specific world: the 51st Ward. It’s the sixth of seven plays in what Holter is now calling “the Rightlynd Saga” (the final piece, Lottery Day, premieres next month at the Goodman; find links to my reviews of the previous entries at the bottom of this review). So rather than standing completely on its own, Red Rex is a glimpse at how theater functions (or dysfunctions) in the imagined neighborhood of Rightlynd, which Holter fans have already seen from several other angles. And what theater is to Rightlynd is another sign of gentrification.

Holter opens on a neat trick that I hate to spoil but we have to get past it: A young black woman storms into the theater (Steep Theatre’s own space essentially doubling as Red Rex Theatre’s in Joe Schermoly’s scenic design) and unleashes what sounds like a classic Ike Holter monologue, laced with highly inventive profanities and staccato rhythms, reading the two white people in front of her to filth for the way they’ve intruded on and befouled her neighborhood.

But in the first of the evening’s several many metatheatrical twists, the monologue is… a monologue. The woman, Nicole (Jessica Dean Turner), is auditioning for a play—her first audition ever, it turns out—and her audience is thrilled. Lana (Amanda Powell), the equal parts passionate-and-pretentious artistic force behind Red Rex Theatre (“artistic director, also director of the show, also writer of the show”), offers her the part on the spot.

From left: Jessica Dean Turner, Joel Reitsma, Aurora Adachi-Winter. Photograph by Gregg Gilman

It’s soon revealed that Nicole’s raw talent may not have been the sole reason Lana seems so relieved to have found her. Lana’s new play, Jagged Surrender, is in her manically delivered words “all about Chicago all about Rightlynd all about race but also not about any of those things because it’s also universal.”

Except it seems Red Rex, though it moved into Rightlynd nearly three years earlier, hasn’t done much to engage with the community it’s in. As Nicole’s new co-star Adam (Joel Reitsma) reveals to her during a rehearsal break, “you’re the only black person Red Rex knows, go theater!”

With newbie Nicole as our fresh eyes, Holter gets in plenty of bracing commentary about the frequently convoluted motivations of making theater generally and making theater in Chicago specifically. (The theater community’s love-hate relationship with the Jeff Awards inspires a couple of solid in-jokes.)

From left: Jessica Dean Turner and Amanda Powell. Photograph: Lee Miller

But at the end of Act I, we get the play’s real big reveal: Jagged Surrender is not an original story sprung from Lana’s brain. The way she came across it is… well, no spoilers, but the way Lana appropriated her plot is so over-the-top inept, implausible and unethical that it almost defies belief, but it’s Holter’s metaphor so we’ve gotta roll with it. Suffice it to say, Red Rex Theatre isn’t just failing to give back to Rightlynd, it’s feeding on Rightlynd’s blood like a vampire.

Red Rex isn’t a love letter to the theater (thank god), but neither is it a kiss-off. There are no straight-up heroes or villains—though Lana and the finance-focused executive director Greg (Chris Chmelik) veer toward presenting as villains in moments, and stage manager Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter) might be the closest to heroic, as stage managers so often are.

From left: Debo Balogun and Chris Chmelik. Photograph by Gregg Gilman

The play takes a mostly clear-eyed view of theater’s, and Chicago theater’s, complicated relationship to race and class and money. It also asks very real questions about what motivates folks to do theater at the storefront (or as one character calls it, “poorfront”) level, where everyone puts in ridiculously long hours for little to no pay, for tiny audiences and scant attention from the media.

Trevor (Debo Balogun), a Rightlynd resident who works as a checkout clerk at the neighborhood’s new grocery store, voices these questions in a heated conversation with Greg that ends with this: “You take from those 30 people in that house that seats 60, but it don’t, cause you can’t even get 60 people a night to put up with your nonsense, I serve 300 people a day you can’t even get 40, the fuck are you people doing.”

And it’s true; everyone involved with Red Rex Theatre seems miserable. Red Rex the play, unlike some of its brethren, is very concerned with who all of this is for. Answers to that question don’t come easily.


Red Rex

Steep Theatre Company (1115 W Berwyn Ave). By Ike Holter. Directed by Jonathan Berry.

Cast: Aurora Adachi-Winter (Tori), Debo Balogun (Trevor), Chris Chmelik (Greg), Nate Faust (Max), Amanda Powell (Lana), Joel Reitsma (Adam), Jessica Dean Turner (Nicole).

Designers: Joe Schermoly (scenic), Pete Dully (lighting), Sarah D. Espinoza (sound), Stefani Azores-Gococo (costumes), Emily Hartig (props), Christina Gorman (violence and intimacy).

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes; one intermission. Through March 16. Tickets ($27–$38) at steeptheatre.com.

Photographs by Lee Miller and Gregg Gilman.


For bonus reading, here are links to my reviews of the five previous entries in Ike Holter’s Rightlynd Saga:

Exit Strategy (2014, Jackalope Theatre)

Sender (2016, A Red Orchid Theatre)

Prowess (2016, Jackalope Theatre)

The Wolf at the End of the Block (2017, Teatro Vista)

Rightlynd (2018, Victory Gardens Theater)


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