Theater review by Alex Huntsberger
When theater artists make theater about theater, they often come to praise it, not to bury it. But with Red Rex, the penultimate play in his Chicago-set Rightlynd Saga, Ike Holter has brought his shovel—and he’s digging. Red Rex is a brave, incisive and wickedly funny dissection of the ways in which Chicago storefront theater has failed, possibly beyond all redemption.
The Red Rex of the title is an all-white storefront theater company based in—or rather, intruding upon—Holter’s fictional 51st ward, Rightlynd. Desperate for a hit, the company’s sociopathically cerebral artistic director, Lana (Amanda Powell), is writing and directing a new play that she thinks could be a real masterpiece: an interracial love story starring local African-American newcomer Nicole (Jessica Dean Turner). But it all comes to a screeching halt when Trevor (Debo Balogun), another Rightlynd resident, shows up to inform the artists about where Lana really got her story.
This isn’t a flash fire, but a controlled burn: Holter and director Jonathan Berry take their time with Red Rex, mixing theater-people satire with the profane, combustible social critique that has become Holter’s calling card. The play has a double focus; as it zooms in on the racist, privileged impulses that govern many of the scene’s white theater artists, it also pulls back to ask what all of it is even for. In the show’s strongest scene—also its quietest—Red Rex’s grouchy genius of a set designer (Nate Faust) offers a crushing lament for every artist who’s believed in the dream of Chicago theater and come away with little or nothing to show for it.
Everyone takes their licks: not just white artists and administrators but also artists of color, critics, donors, the Jeff Committee, everyone. But Holter knows how to shade his characters in; even the play’s closest thing to a true villain—Red Rex’s white, gay artistic director Greg (Chris Chmelik)—has his moments. The only parts of the play that ring false are the hopeful bits that Holter drops in towards the end, starting with a twist that immediately spins off its axis. By then, Red Rex has done such a convincing job of burning everything to the ground that salting the earth and walking away seem like the only correct course of action.
Steep Theatre. By Ike Holter. Directed by Jonathan Berry. With Aurora Adachi-Winter, Debo Balogun, Chris Chmelik, Nate Faust, Joel Reitsma, Amanda Powell, Jessica Dean Turner. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.
By: Alex Huntsberger