‘Red Rex’ at Steep: When theater stages local story, fantasy lifts curtain on one man’s pain
Review. “Red Rex” by Ike Holter. World premiere. Directed by Jonathan Berry at Steep Theatre, extended through March 30. ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
The latest installment in Ike Holter’s now six-play saga of the fictional Chicago neighborhood of Rightlynd is part social commentary, part inside-theater sendup. From all angles, it is smartly written – provocative, witty and taut.
“Red Rex” takes its title from a Rightlynd storefront theater, a struggling enterprise that finally may get over the hump with a compelling new play devised by the company’s resident playwright Lana. Devised, as in borrowed and adapted. There’s the rub.
Lana overheard the story in a bar, about something that went down between a black woman and white man in the neighborhood some years ago. Now everybody in the Red Rex company thinks it’s Lana’s best play yet. She just hasn’t mentioned where she got the idea, nor has she sought permission to use the story from anyone connected with the actual events.
As rehearsals push on toward opening night, everything seems great. To play opposite company member Adam, Lana – who’s both playwright and director – has found a natural from the community, a spunky black woman called Nicole. Actually, Nicole’s fiery audition monologue open’s Holter’s play on a stunning note. In that crucial role, Jessica Dean Turner provides “Red Rex” with a solid anchor of vulnerability melded with swelling anger and fine-tuned awareness..
But the rehearsal process that fills the play’s first half is less concerned with the play within the play than it is with a parody of what one might call drama babble: We find director and actors tumbling headlong, and yet uncertainly, through on-the-spot monosyllabic character analysis. Mainly, they regurgitate the bromides ingested at theater school or in their association with bromidic directors.
Playwright-director Lana, played by Amanda Powell with deadpan over-the-top intensity, struts and postures and exhorts. Her words also come out in little platitudinous bursts. She’s completely in command, anyway in her own mind. She wants what she wants, and she’s ready to explain that in a profusion of terms that mostly begin with f.
Meanwhile, Adam (Joel Reitsma) is working his way inside his character with an urgency matched only by his hesitation. As this white guy at the onset of a liaison with a beguiling black woman, Reitsma summons an amusing but also edged mixture of resolve, anxiety and pathos. The most daunting scene for everyone – except the director, of course – looms just ahead. It’s a bedroom love scene where the woman takes her clothes off. Will Nicole do it? Can Adam handle it?
The rudder for this bobbing stagecraft is Tori, the obsessive-compulsive, military strict stage manager, who by her own account and everyone’s concurrence is the smartest person in the room. The distractions, the carping, the calamities all stop at the feet of petite, super-efficient Tori – whom Aurora Adachi-Winter translates into the most appealing and sympathetic character in view.
Tori has a sort of inverse counterpart in Max, the set designer. Where she is small and focused, Max (in the magnetic persona of Nate Faust) is large, free-wheeling, brusque. This show will not have a physical set; the playwright-cum-director has decided on projections instead. Max feels he has been discarded. Yet he, like Tori, comes across as a creature of the real world who is still able to function in the fantasyland of theater without channeling its pretense.
At this point, you might reasonably ask: What about the play within the play? That’s Act 2, when the truth of Lana’s little narrative expropriation hits home with a big wallop.
Enter Trevor, a black man and neighborhood resident who knows the story behind Lana’s play in some detail. Trevor (the personable and warmly expressive Debo Balogun) does not see Lana’s theatrical gambit as an adaptation. He sees it as theft. In short order, the Red Rex company, now days away from opening this potentially transformative play, has a serious problem.
They could cancel, but the executive director (Chris Chmelik) believes they have a hit in the making and insists they go for the long-awaited payoff. Trevor greets that determination with a shake of his head and a wan smile – and a question: Why do you theater people do what you do? You don’t make any money at it. He says he knows people on welfare who are better off than the sorry occupants of this poorfront theater. (Trevor is corrected: It’s storefront.)
Indeed, Trevor’s looming presence raises other questions, about integrity and community and respect. He wants to talk to the playwright, the white woman who took something from his life. But that door is closed. The nearest he’s likely to get to the author – or rather, adaptor – is to see the end result of her inspiration, her plunder: the play on stage.