Sunday, March 24, 2019

Review of Red Rex at Steep Theatre Company

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Red Rex. It was written by Ike Holter and directed by Jonathan Berry. It is about a theater company that has opened up in the gentrifying neighborhood of Rightlynd. The artistic director, Lana (Morgan Lavenstien when I saw it, usually Amanda Powell) is producing a play she wrote that revolves around the relationship of a lower class black mother who is played by Nicole (Jessica Dean Turner), a woman from the neighborhood who is acting in her first play, and an upper class white man, played by a company member Adam (Jack Miggins), and their unlikely love story. Revelations about the source of her play come to light when Trevor (Debo Balogun), a man from the neighborhood begins talking to company members. The company continues to try to produce this show and in the process the company’s own internalized racism comes to light. This deeply affects Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter), the stage manager, who comes to important realizations about the company and her own direction in life. It is about safety in art, appropriation, and privilege in theater. I think this is a really great show. It makes a lot of great points, is beautifully acted and written, and is hilarious as well.

The play was very good at showing realistic scenes of the struggles of rehearsing and producing a play in toxic environments. Red Rex is completely run by young idealists who don't seem to have any idea that what they are doing is unethical. For example, they did not have an intimacy choreographer in the show within the show (though they do for Red Rex--Christina Gorman). The director didn't think she needed one because she is a gay woman and didn't think she could make anyone uncomfortable. But the reason you have intimacy choreographers is because the director's vision can be more important to them than the wellbeing of their actors. It is kind of like a conflict of interest. The play was also very good at showing the relationships that people develop when they are involved in a show they think will suck or is problematic. Nicole and Adam start a romantic relationship (which is then weird and is then not weird) because they have bonded over their annoyance with Lana and the play. The stage manager, Tori, reaches out to the set designer, Max (Nate Faust) because they are both being mistreated/ignored by Lana. By the time the show opens they have gotten closer and related to each other because they've fought for each other to be respected. Tori has to endure the show Lana produced longer because she has to be there every night, watching the show over and over, a show that goes against so many things that she believes in. She has to keep watching all these scenes and interactions that she told Lana repeatedly made the actors uncomfortable. It doesn't destroy Tori's relationships with the actors because they are all trying.

The type of appropriation we see in this show is literally a white person taking a black person's story and passing it off as her own fictional work. It shows what is wrong with Chicago theater as well as appropriation more generally. It shows a situation where you might be tempted to excuse the appropriation because it appears to be well-meaning and not as obviously appropriative as something like Cher wearing a native american feather headdresses or dreadlocks. I don't think that playwrights shouldn't be able to write characters of different races. But it is especially not okay to take a story from someone who is an actual living person and has an actual life story and take it and tell them how they feel. Lana also changes the original story to have a happy ending that fits her idea of white people as heroes and consent as not always important. The managing director, Greg (Chris Chmelik), tries to bribe the person whose story it is into silence so that the company can profit from the story. Just because you pay someone for their story doesn't mean you have a right to tell it, especially if you are going to change it to make your own points.

Even though this play focuses on some very serious topics, it still has a lot of comedic scenes. One of my favorite of those scenes is where Lana explains the artistic vision for Jagged Surrender and you can see the pure concern on the character's faces. Because you can also see the audience across from you, you also see the concern on their faces for the very artsy bullcrap that Lana has decided to try to create. This was quite funny because I related to the experience of looking at a pitch for a show and just being confused. I also loved Tori's reactions to almost everything. She was so deadpan but you could still see her true reaction even though it was masked. The pitch of the poster to Lana when they had already made it seemed reasonable, but Lana's notes for it and her reaction were totally ridiculous. You see this reaction a lot when directors don't know what direction they want to go with a show, so they decide to ask you to take two opposing ideas and make them work together.

People who would like this show are people who like holding a mirror up to the Chicago theater community, realistic plays about plays, and making fun of artsy bullcrap. I think this is an amazing show. I loved the concept and it was done so well all around. I loved it.

Photos: Lee Miller, Gregg Gilman

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