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Debo Balogun (left) and Chris Chmelik in “Red Rex” at Steep Theatre. | Gregg Gilman Photo

‘Red Rex’ puts Chicago theater scene squarely in its crosshairs

SHARE ‘Red Rex’ puts Chicago theater scene squarely in its crosshairs
SHARE ‘Red Rex’ puts Chicago theater scene squarely in its crosshairs

There are few words theater folk love to toss around more than “community” and “universal.” Both show up in pretty much every mission statement of every Off-Loop theater that ever existed. Curtain speeches about how the theater belongs to the “community” as much as to the artists on- and off-stage are as common as unsung stage managers. Ditto press releases that repeatedly stress the “universal” nature of any given production.

‘Red Rex’ ★★★ When: March 2 Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Tickets: $10-$38 Info: steeptheatre.com

So it goes in Ike Holter’s “Red Rex, “ the sixth play in Holter’s seven-play “Rightlynd” saga. (The final play is “Lottery Day,” which opens this fall at the Goodman Theatre.) Set in the fictitious 51st ward of Chicago, “Red Rex” gives the audience a fly-on-the-wall view of the myopic hypocrisies of a tiny Off-Loop storefront theater (“poor front” in the play’s clever parlance) that claims to be all about a community it is actually harming.

Directed by Jonathan Berry, “Red Rex” mercilessly skewers Chicago’s theater scene while delivering a pointed commentary on gentrification and racism. It also takes on “ally theater” – the people and institutions talk a big game when it comes to social justice issues but never actually do anything about them.

As the titular Red Rex theater company struggles toward opening a world premiere, Holter trains his sights on the insufferable, entitled solipsism that defines the company. Those qualities are embodied in playwright/director Lana (Amanda Powell, nicely capturing the vast ego and insecurity that live within many creative types), author of “Jagged Surrender.” Her new play is very Chicago but also very “universal,” Lana informs her crew. Both her words and her titles are red flags. Beware the play that is directed by the same person who wrote it. Especially when they start dropping the “u” word.

Amanda Powell (left) and Aurora Adachi-Winter in a scene from Ike Holter’s “Red Rex” at Steep Theatre. | Lee Miller Photo

Amanda Powell (left) and Aurora Adachi-Winter in a scene from Ike Holter’s “Red Rex” at Steep Theatre. | Lee Miller Photo

Powell makes Lana’s shortcomings clear from the start. Take, for example, her “Waiting For Guffman”-worthy instructions for her show’s poster. They are a run of words that make no sense at all. Never mind skills as a director; Lana doesn’t even have basic powers of communication.

Lana’s talk of embracing the Rightlynd community is similarly meaningless. You’ll see “Phantom of the Opera” at a 40-seat black box before you’ll see companies like Red Rex really acknowledging the community outside its walls. Unless, of course, that acknowledgment comes with appropriation. In that, Red Rex excels.

Lana’s play tells the story of Amanda Patrice Jones, an African-American woman killed by the Chicago police. Lana passes “Jagged Surrender” off as a work of fiction until Jones’ son Trevor (Debo Balogun) shows up. He rips the theater to shreds for monetizing his mother’s murder and claiming his tragedy as their story. When Trevor calls out the group for stealing, he scorches the line between fiction and reality. He’s talking about Red Rex and ”Jagged Surrender,” but he could be talking about displacement going back to Manifest Destiny or before.

Predictably, Lana and executive producer Greg (Chris Chmelik), growing ever more villainous as “Red Rex” progresses, remain mired in in their inability to value the world outside their theater company. They see Trevor (who they repeatedly call “Trayvon”) as a problem to be “fixed” rather than as a human being.

Red Rex stage manager Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter) and “Jagged Surrender” leading lady Nicole (Jessica Dean Turner) aren’t so blinkered. Tellingly, both are women of color. Turner makes Nicole’s intense emotions wonderfully apparent, even when she’s not speaking a word. Adachi-Winter keeps a poker face throughout, but somehow manages to convey the depths of Tori’s passion, and the respect she has for the Rightlynd community. She’s all brains, drive and empathy, even when she’s scouring the floor for forgotten dime-bags.

Holter’s script is powerful, but it’s not without problems. “Red Rex” sometimes sags and could stand to lose a good 15 minutes. It goes hard for the cliché that for artists, making money means selling out. Despite what “Jagged Surrender” designer Max (Nate Faust) would have us believe, taking a temporary gig with a money-generating boy band doesn’t mean you’ve sold your soul to the devil and can never come back to Off-Loopland.

Also ridiculous is producer Greg’s statement that, given the right material, a 60-seat theater company could make “$300,000.” Red Rex, we’re told, sells 44 tickets on a good day. This is not a company that will ever generate six figures over the course of a single show.

Of all of Holter’s “Rightlynd” plays, “Red Rex” is one of the strongest and one of his funniest. Its meta-aspects are often hilarious. But you don’t need to be theater obsessive to see the wit, the depth and the all-important commentary on just what art and artists owe to the people outside their theater doors.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

Jessica Dean Turner and Joel Reitsma in a scene from the Steep Theatre production of “Red Rex.” | Lee Miller

Jessica Dean Turner and Joel Reitsma in a scene from the Steep Theatre production of “Red Rex.” | Lee Miller

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