Unlike, say, the Chicago of Chicago, Ike Holter’s Chicago is vividly recognizable. The specifics that define the arc of his Chicago Cycle are as familiar as that unpatched pothole that taunts you daily or the creep of gentrification through Pilsen. Throughout the cycle, Holter has examined various aspects of the city, ranging from neighborhood crime to the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the Chicago Public Schools to everyday superheroes.
In Rightlynd, which chronologically comes at the beginning of the seven-play cycle, he ventures into politics. It features Nina Esposito, first-term alderwoman of the eponymous (and fictional) 51st Ward. Directed by Lisa Portes, this Victory Gardens production opens with a fusillade of words and unfolds in a crossfire of genres.
Into 100 minutes, Holter packs song-and-dance numbers, brawls worthy of a light saber, a star-crossed love story, and pointed commentaries on voter suppression, gentrification, and political corruption. The dialogue veers from kitchen-sink realism to heightened verse. The opening gambit is a lightning burst of poetry that evokes Nelson Algren and nails the complicated, conflicting, totally messed up and almost indescribable beauty of Chicago.
The plot is a warhorse: an idealistic political novice runs for office only to find that compromise and corruption are pretty much unavoidable. Doing good, Alderwoman Esposito (Monica Orozco) learns, is harder than promising to do good. Calling to burn down the system is easy. Coming up with specific solutions to build something better? That’s all-too-often unaddressed in the fervor of reform campaigns of all stripes.
Esposito is motivated to run when she sees the longtime residents and businesses in her neighborhood being forced out by gentrification. The Big Bad in the drama is the suit from the Applewood development corporation (Jerome Beck). We all know this guy. He uses words like “revitalization” when he buys up schools that shouldn’t have been shuttered in the first place in order to turn them into multimillion dollar condos. He forces out family-owned auto-body shops and brings in artisanal beard-oil boutiques.
Esposito runs on a promise to stop Applewood and save the neighborhood. But her campaign has barely begun before she starts making choices that are unbelievably stupid, even for a newbie, especially for a character that’s been presented as whip smart. She makes friends with the local weed dealer (LaKecia Harris). Then she starts buying pot in exchange for votes. On the one hand, so what? Surely we all know by now that weed should be as legal as brunch, if not more so. On the other hand: Blatantly buying votes? That’s got nothing to do with the legality of marijuana. Esposito’s blithe bone-headedness doesn’t square with the intelligence she displays otherwise. Her downfall seems obvious early, her decisions to flout the law seem unlikely. That is the primary problem with Rightlynd.
The secondary problem is that Portes’s cast seemed under-rehearsed on opening night: there were more than a few odd repetitions and pauses just awkward enough to seem unplanned. But these are minimal, likely temporary troubles. The cast is all in, and the energy ricochets through the theater. And make no mistake: there is a bounty of entertainment in watching Esposito’s story play out.
As Esposito, Orozco has the headstrong, ambitious grit you’d expect from anyone willing to take on a long-sitting incumbent. Her belief that she can make right prevail never falters, even as she gets deeper and deeper into legal quicksand. In her final incarnation—when righteousness is nowhere to be found—she remains adamant that she’s a force for good. Whether it’s denial or a front doesn’t matter. It’s how she presents, and presentation for a politician is everything.
The supporting cast ably portrays the assortment of believable characters in her orbit: troubled constituents, a conflicted assistant, and the love interest, an ex-con whose troubles at the ballot box are an urgent depiction of a systemic problem. Holter’s authenticity only flags in his depiction of a reporter whose cheesy, blatantly subjective copy wouldn’t make it past a decent editor.
Flaws and all, Rightlynd is a wild ride from an important voice. The fires it takes on—gentrification and the wholesale erasure of entire communities—should have everybody up in arms. And, with real-life aldermanic and mayoral elections coming up in February, audiences will want to make sure they’re registered to vote. v