Victory Gardens (Upstairs)
At the Richard Christiansen Theatre
(Upstairs Victory Gardens Theatre)
by Dan Zeff
Chicago –“Rightlynd” is a holy mess of a play, but it has so many good performances and enough engrossing moments to justify a visit to the Victory Gardens Theater. Just be prepared for a 100-minute intermissionless drama with music that radically shifts gears without warning.
“Rightlynd” is the work of Ike Holter, a local black playwright who concentrates on works about Chicago, especially its inner city. Some day Holter may be to Chicago what August Wilson was to Pittsburgh. On the evidence of “Rightlynd” he has an abundance of ideas but they need to be honed into a coherent work. Yet the writing chops are there and so is the urgency of the subject.
The title, taken from the CTA transit line, is the name of a Chicago fictional 51st ward (the city actually has 50). It’s a ramshackle neighborhood of urban decay—poverty and gangs and anger and despair. A young Latino woman named Nina Esposito decides to run for alderman representing the 51st ward to try to turn the area into a livable urban area. She’s a fiery idealist and by some miracle not explained in Holter’s script, Nina wins the alderman election by a single vote and launches her campaign to rid her ward of gangs and bring hope to the beleaguered residents.
Nina starts off on a high note by eliminating the corrupt Applewood Corporation, backed by the city political machine, planning to gentrify the ward and squeeze the desperate shopkeepers into bankruptcy. The narrative is conveyed through realistic dialogue (the play’s language is drenched in profanity), rap, and pop music singing and dancing. Nina is surrounded by inner city types, and gets personal with an ex-con named Pac who becomes her advisor and lover. There are assorted neighborhood types played by five of the seven members of the ensemble.
About two thirds of the way through the play things starting coming apart for Nina politically. The ward residents who treated her as a liberator now see her as a betrayer. This sudden shift occurs without any significant preparation by the script. Nina topples from heroine of the people to a lackey of the powers that be at city hall, with the Applewood Corporation again casting its sinister shadow. Along the way Nina and Pac perform a long romantic dance that looked like an out take from the movie “La La Land.” Somebody is shot to death on stage and at the end we see Nina, dressed in pristine white, alone in a hot spotlight, apparently trying to figure out where it all went wrong.
The problem is that there are so many stylistic and thematic shifts in the production that the audience (or at least one member of the audience) couldn’t make sense out of Nina’s decline and fall. There are too many distracting musical numbers and shouting arguments and accusations.
It’s worth noting that “Rightlynd” is a world premier, which means it should be in a fluid state for revision. Holter is too good a writer, and too committed to exploring and exposing the plight of inner Chicago. He and director Lisa Portes need to tighten and focus. Is the play intended to be a hard-edged portrait of the inner city? How about a portrait of a reformer and the stresses she faces in trying to break through the seemingly impenetrable wall of indifference and corruption in high places? Can the raw language of the streets be more expressive than just a string of f- bombs?
The production has an attractive and persuasive actress in Monica Orozco to handle the role of Nina. There is fire in Nina’s belly and a desire for social change that starts out as naïve but turns into reality with Nina’s election to the city council. Orozco is surrounded by talented supporting players as good as any on Chicagoland stages. Eddie Martinez plays Pac as an ex con who wants to do better if he can only free himself from the system. He hitches his fate to Nina’s political rise, and it ultimately costs him dearly.
Robert Cornelius is a tall angular man who supplies much of the show’s comedy and also much of its white hot anger. Jerome Beck is smooth and relentless as a representative of the Applewood Corporation. Anish Jethmalani is superb as a local newspaper reporter who wants to help Nina redress the wretched conditions in the ward, until he loses his access to her, a rejection that makes no dramatic sense. LeKecia Harris and Sasha Smith are young black women who connect with Nina until by the end they leave her in frustration and anger.
The production sits neatly in the comfortable Christiansen theater on the second floor of the Victory Gardens, a space that should be used more often. Colette Pollard’s single set design recreates the ambience of the inner city with its metal sliding doors and iron gates. Samantha Jones designed the authentic looking costumes, Jared Gooding designed the lighting and Mikhail Fiksel the sound. The musical element is handled by the score by Holter (lyrics) and Charlie Coffeen (original songs and music).
I left the theater both exhilarated and annoyed. The best of “Rightlynd” is relevant, hard hitting, and filled with strong character portraits. But the sprawl of the show, leading up to the unsatisfying ending, needs a hard look. The play has a future, but first the workshop beckons.
The shoe gets a rating of.
“Rightlynd” runs through December 23 at the Richard Christiansen Theater at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday 3 p.m. Tickets are $27 to $55. Call (773) 871-3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.