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Review: RED REX at Steep Theatre

Review: RED REX at Steep Theatre

Ike Holter's RED REX, now in its world premiere at Steep Theatre, is a delightfully meta-theatrical experience. The play is the sixth in local playwright Holter's ambitious seven-play cycle about Rightlynd, the fictional 51st ward of Chicago. It is one of the most intriguing, brilliant, and solidly constructed plays in the "Rightlynd Saga." RED REX is Chicago theater that is quite literally about Chicago theater. Yet Holter never panders to his theater-loving audience in his writing. Watching RED REX is a simultaneously gratifying and challenging experience, and that's precisely what makes this play so powerful.

RED REX concerns a fictional storefront theater company of the same name, which has moved into an abandoned property in Rightlynd. On the brink of financial ruin, the company is poised to produce what might be one of its most monumental productions yet, at least according to playwright/director Lana (Amanda Powell) and Executive Director Greg (Chris Chmelik). While Red Rex has long been separated from the larger Rightlynd community, Lana has found inspiration from the neighborhood itself for this latest work. But when local Trevor (Debo Balogun) arrives on the scene, it soon becomes clear that the play's story might not necessarily be Lana's to tell.

With this set-up, Holter is able to explore questions about what it means to tell the truth in theater and also to question the value of a theater company that is completely divorced from the world outside it. The play grapples with these questions, but Holter never answers them outright.

RED REX is more tightly constructed than some other Holter plays I've seen. Though the second act could still use a trim, the narrative unfolds in a satisfying sequence. Stylistically, the work is more straightforward and less experimental than some of the other entries in the Rightlynd Saga. In constructing RED REX this way, Holter lets the story come to the forefront, and that works brilliantly.

In RED REX, Holter makes myriad references to the Chicago theater community as well as many classic tropes. While Holter's characters are rich and multi-dimensional, we also see many familiar theatrical types within the play. Theater-loving audiences may likely see themselves in RED REX, which can be both rewarding and cringeworthy. Again, Holter's focus on that inherent tension is part of what makes this such a strong piece.

Jonathan Berry directs an expert cast who bring these roles fully to life. As Lana, Powell has a delicious and sometimes frightening self-righteousness. But Powell makes sure her portrayal of Lana displays as much insecurity as it does self-assuredness. She's every bit the playwright/director who both wants to own her confidence, but also constantly seeks validation from those around her. As Executive Director Greg, Chmelik conveys just how detached he is from the Rightlynd community; an early encounter between Trevor and Greg reveals just how clueless he is. Chmelik and Balogun (who is on the whole compelling) play off each other beautifully, demonstrating the considerable dividing line that Red Rex has drawn between itself and Rightlynd.

Jessica Dean Turner and Joel Reitsma are also delightful as the actors Nicole and Adam in Lana's play. As newcomer Nicole, Turner provides a grounded, powerful presence, particularly in her delivery of some of the characters probing questions. As seasoned actor Adam, Reitsma nails the trope of the performer who has myriad questions throughout the rehearsal process; this may be a type we know well, but Reitsma keeps the integrity of the character. Nate Faust provides humor as the cheeky set designer Max, nailing his line deliveries with precise, wry timing. Aurora Adachi-Winter rounds out the cast in her magnificent performance as the stage manager Tori. In the script, Holter notes that Tori "has seen it all but never shows it." Adachi-Winter nails this quality to the letter; her Tori is a stickler during the rehearsal process and wants to keep the show running efficiently on behalf of the others involved, but she also makes clear that she's making note of every move. Adachi-Winter's performance indicates that Tori is a force to be reckoned with.

Steep Theatre's intimate performance space is precisely the right one in which to debut RED REX. Joe Schermoly's set design has a stripped-down nature to it befitting the fictional theater company play. Costume designer Stefani Azores-Gococo's costumes encapsulate that "theater people" aesthetic in a way that nicely suits each of the characters.

If you're in the Chicago theater community (or, frankly, if you're at all connected to the world of theater in general), Holter will both affirm your decision and also make you question why you ever chose that path. This tension prevails throughout RED REX, and that's a large part of what makes it a necessary theatergoing experience. I will be interested to see how the saga continues when LOTTERY DAY, the seventh piece in Holter's Chicago-centric cycle, debuts at Goodman Theatre this spring. But for the moment, I think it will be hard to top RED REX in terms of impact; this is a play that both affirms and challenges why theater exists in a uniquely powerful way.

RED REX is now extended through March 30 at Steep Theatre, 1115 West Berwyn. Tickets are $27-$38.

Photo by Lee Miller

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