Joel Reitsma, Nate Faust, Jessica Dean Turner, and Aurora Adachi-Winter (l to r) in RED REX at Steep Theatre. Photo by Lee Miller
Ike Holter could announce he was writing a play about paint drying, and I’d be first in line for tickets. His seven-part Rightlynd saga is enjoying several productions in Chicago this year, including the world premieres of the first play in the series, Rightlynd, at Victory Gardens ( which I reviewed) and the seventh, Lottery Day, which opens at the Goodman on March 29 and which I was fortunate enough to see as a staged reading during the Goodman’s 2017 New Stages Festival.
Jessica Dean Turner and Joel Reitsma (l to r) in RED REX at Steep Theatre. Photo by Lee Miller
So I jumped on the chance to see play number six in the series—
Red Rex, which follows a struggling storefront theatre company convinced that their latest play will be the breakthrough they need to stay afloat. As a company whose members consist almost entirely of white people, their ability to connect to residents of the black and brown Rightlynd neighborhood they moved into three years ago has been…well, lacking, to say the least. And when it’s revealed that their original new work is not as original as playwright and artistic director Lana claims, the entire company’s values are called into question.
Amanda Powell and Aurora Adachi-Winter (l to r) in RED REX at Steep Theatre. Photo by Lee Miller
Sparkling like sunshine off a gemstone is
Tori, the Asian lesbian stage manager I’d already met in Lottery Day. She may be watching from the sidelines, but ultimately she’s the backbone of the company—and the person in it with the most backbone. Plus, her awkwardness and dark sense of humor, amplified brilliantly by actor Aurora Adachi-Winter, make her the source of much of the story’s laughter.
Jessica Dean Turner and Debo Balogun (l to r) in RED REX at Steep Theatre. Photo by Gregg Gilman
Not that there’s any shortage of laughter. If
Ike Holter is one thing (which he’s not, of course, he’s about a hundred things at once, and therein lies his brilliance), it’s funny. This is a play designed for theatre people to especially enjoy, and Lana’s vague, contradictory rambling early in the show about what she wants the play-within-the-play to be prompts peals of laughter from anyone who’s ever heard a stage director talk. But there’s no shortage of heaviness, either. Without giving too much away, the moment when community member Trevor realizes the play’s story is stolen is chilling, haunting in a way that sticks to your bones. Of course, it’s dampened a bit by a very obvious zipper, but I suppose not all stage magic can be truly magical.
Jessica Dean Turner and Amanda Powell (l to r) in RED REX at Steep Theatre. Photo by Lee Miller
Amanda Powell is stunning as Lana, playing her unapologetic cockiness and her deep insecurities with equal ease. And Jessica Dean Turner is magnificent as Nicole, a local black girl the company hires for the play, since heaven forbid they have any black women in their actual ensemble. Turner captures Nicole’s journey from excited newcomer eager to please to deeply conflicted woman trying to balance her identity and ethics with the production she’s committed to being a part of.
Debo Balogun and Chris Chmelik (l to r) in RED REX at Steep Theatre. Photo by Gregg Gilman
Nothing is simple in the Holterverse, and this play is no exception. One of the most powerful moments in the script is when
Trevor rails against the existence of Red Rex itself, asking why anybody would work from dawn to dusk as they do to make less money than he does as a cashier. What could possibly be so important? And moreover, why is it only white people who seem so obsessed with making theatre happen?
Is theatre white nonsense? The most convincing argument in the script is that yes, it is. Yet
Ike Holter, a black man, chose to use a play to ask that question. So the answer, in my book, is maybe. Or maybe not. Come see this gorgeous play and decide for yourself.
Jessica Dean Turner, Joel Reitsma, and Aurora Adachi-Winter (l to r) in RED REX at Steep Theatre. Photo by Gregg Gilman
Location: Steep Theatre, 1115 West Berwyn Ave., Chicago, IL 60640
Dates: January 24 – March 30, 2019
Times: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8pm. Sunday matinees at 3pm.
-Open Captioning: Sunday, February 17 at 3:00pm
-Audio Description: Saturday, February 23 at 8:00pm
Tickets: General Admission Tickets, $27. Reserved Seat Tickets, $38. Access Tickets, $10 (Steep’s universal discount for students, artists, whomever). Available by calling (773) 649-3186 or at the Steep Theatre website.