Key Reviews: ‘Rightlynd’ at Victory Gardens Theater

These are the fourth set of reviews from this year’s The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program. Members of this cohort are: Sierra Carlson, Yasmin Mikhaiel, Aaron Lockman, Elon Sloan, and Lonnae Hickman. All reviews are workshopped and edited by co-facilitators Oliver Sava and Regina Victor. Check out their reviews of Rightlynd at Victory Gardens Theater below! 

Elon Sloan

The set of Rightlynd, a series of painted and papered over windows and storefronts designed by Collette Pollard, tells you right from the start what this play is going to be about. Directed by Lisa Portes and written by Ike Holter, Rightlynd is a tragedy about the titular neighborhood trying to stop itself from being gentrified by the Applewood Foundation, embodied by Jerome Beck. Our protagonist, Nina Esposito, played by Monica Orozco, starts out the play as an unemployed girl with a lot of determination who wants to replace her alderman. Supported by the people of her community with promises to stop the Applewood Foundation from taking over, Nina ultimately wins the race.

The community members, played by actors assuming different roles, really make Rightlynd the show. The ensemble flexes back and forth between chorus and individual denizens, and the latter help you care about the community’s survival. Sasha Smith brings energy and great timing to the role of Nina’s assistant and several other people around town. Robinson (Robert Cornelius), a charismatic used car salesman and mechanic slow to trust Nina’s political ambitions, becomes a beloved character by the end of the show. The way the ensemble uses movement and quick moments of characterization to create both anonymous and familiar community faces is definitely a victory for Lisa Portes’ directing style. 

Rightlynd is part political drama, part superhero flick, part tragedy, and sometimes it can feel like all of those different parts are moving on their own in confusing ways. But the play holds everything together with a sense of theatricality and Lisa Portes’ decisive pacing. I love that this play darts in and out of reality to create fun moments and give the performers a chance to shine. In one moment it goes out of its way to include extra information about what aldermen are and how to run as one. In another, the Applewood Foundation’s glitzy goals are manifested through dancers in glittery jackets. Ike Holter’s mastery at taking audiences from moment to energetic moment until all of the right pieces click into place is a big part of what makes Rightlynd great.

Despite how much I love this play’s energy and theatricality, I’m not sure that everything really comes together. Applewood Foundation sounds so close to the real-world Alphawood Foundation its easy to mishear the actors during the show. But Alphawood hasn’t come under scrutiny for promoting gentrification the way other foundations like Rebuild or the Mayor’s office have. Moments before the climax of the play I found myself asking “What is going on? Why is this happening right now?” as the comedic tone of the moment clashed with some extremely high stakes. Rightlynd has its fair share of those moments that feel a little ungrounded.

Rightlynd taps into some of the biggest political questions Chicago has as it sets up its characters, but resolves their stories with tragedian tropes. We first get to know Rightlynd through the eyes of Pac (Eddie Martinez), who’s just been released after years of wrongful incarceration. Nina is a young person who knows next to nothing about the political system and doesn’t have a job, but wants to do something after not being able to save her mother’s corner store. We meet the characters as they’re reckoning with the knowledge that their community is being slowly dissolved. They know that the lives they’ve built, the businesses they own, and the landmarks they’ve grown up around don’t mean anything to politicians like the mayor or their aldermen, or the foundations and developers that will make money from their removal.

We go from first moments where the established characters and stakes of the plot feel natural and fully intertwined with Chicago’s political realities, to an ending that feels symbolic and is very specific to Nina’s personal problems. In a classic tragedy format, her hubris leads to her downfall, and her downfall means that all of the the people she leads suffer. But by the time we get to the end it’s hard to know what exactly Rightlynd is saying and whether or not it’s new and offers discourse-provoking social criticism. Then again, every play that dips its toes into the waters of political commentary isn’t obligated to resolve its plot on those terms alone. But I find that the plays which are able to really commit to their political stakes are few and far between, and I’d love to see more of them. Still, Rightlynd does a lot to start people thinking about the impacts of gentrification, and that’s a great focus for a play which chronologically marks the start of Holter’s Chicago Cycle.

Bias Alert: I have learned from both Robert Cornelius and Lisa Portes during my time as a student.

Yasmin Mikhaiel

Ike Holter’s Rightlynd is the seventh produced play of his Chicago cycle that chronicles our hurting and corrupt city through the eyes of its citizens. These plays are often about people becoming the very thing they hate in a city they love. And this play is chronologically first, following the trajectory of alderman hopeful Nina Esposito (Monica Orozco) in Chicago’s fictional 51st ward, Rightlynd. With the rise of gangs and gentrification, Esposito hopes to restore Rightlynd to its historic roots, where her own family previously operated a bodega around the corner.

At this point, Holter has a cult following. Equipped with biting, fast-paced dialogue, guffaw-worthy jokes, and POC representation, his plays live and breathe among us. Holter is Chicago on stage. But Rightlynd feels a bit out of place as this stir crazy story jumps genres. It’s musical-esque, with choice scenes including singing and dancing; there’s detective noir with an ethics-bound journalist dictating his writing; and a sprinkle of rom-com that ends in devastation.

Every character has a story, but they don’t seem to be living in the same one, and maybe that’s the point. When we enter Rightlynd, we are thrown into the hustle and bustle of people on the go. In the background are three storefronts in various states of disarray, one serving as a newspaper office from where a journalist preaches his writing (scenic design by Collette Pollard). Though stunningly distressed in shades of black and gray with an archway plastered in newspapers, the relationship between characters and these spaces are not always clear. Nevertheless, Lisa Portes directs a dynamic ensemble that puts their whole selves into every scene.

This is especially true of actor Jerome Black, our main villain, an avatar of a giant real estate conglomerate and developer: Applewood. He’s looking to put up condos without a conscience. Applewood sings the old tune of gentrifiers: prosperity comes with tearing down the old and embracing the new. Though the 51st ward is fictional, Applewood and what he represents is very much real. This name seems a mashup of the Alphawood Foundation and Apple, organizations that both carry controversy and mystery. It’s maybe the most recognizable of Holter’s inversion of our world and Rightlynd’s. This villain is real and does much to intensify the spaces he inhabits.

Rightlynd would benefit from more of this intensity overall. The musical outbreaks feel like an emotional cop out, even if the actors Robert Cornelius and Sasha Smith have voices that are so complementary, practically stealing the limelight from soon-to-be lovebirds. These scene do much to forward the plot, but so much of Holter’s clever rollercoaster dialogue gets stuck on the tracks when transformed into song. This play feels like a climb, and I don’t think we ever reach the top. The play functions as the backstory of Esposito, who is mentioned in Holter’s other plays, and we watch as her resolve for the greater good of everyone is ultimately corrupted in the face of personal pursuits. We are left wondering what is up next for a city that seems to corrupt everyone. Even the good guys aren’t that good and perhaps the thought that there even are any good guys is actually a myth. So much is building up, but we’ll never truly know the results until much later down the road, much like life and it’s unbelievably annoying twist and turns.

Sierra Carlson

Chicago’s fictional 51st ward is crumbling, and Rightlynd is in danger of either falling into ruins or becoming unrecognizable to its current tenants. But perhaps there is a third option. Nina Esposito (Monica Orozco) runs for Alderman in a move to save her community from corporate gentrification. Esposito’s political rise shares the same location as the other plays in Ike Holter’s Chicago play cycle. Victory Gardens Theater commissioned the script from the local playwright and it is a deeply engaging production.

The citizens of Rightlynd are the most charming collective of rapscallions who really hate brunch. From the get-go, it is clear that we are in for something fluid. All performers, except for two, are billed as Denizen 1-5 and take on multiple roles. Actors seamlessly shift from concerned citizens to cheery assistants to hardened criminals. Even the briefest interactions are captivating, and the quick language banishes any lag. Holter has written a minefield of hilarious one-liners that you’ll be muttering back to yourself under your breath on the way home. The demographics of Rightlynd’s citizens are refreshingly diverse without a single white body on stage. This casting decision speaks to the citizenry that makes up so much of Chicago’s communities.

A lot happens in this play. In 90 minutes, the script covers three years. Nina Esposito goes from political hopeful to elected Alderman in maybe 10 minutes. Samantha C. Jones’ costume design helps catapult us through time as the newly elected Alderman’s clothing begins to match the clean-cut and curated position. The fast-moving plot and even faster language still reserve time for several dance numbers and a slow-motion fight scene. It is Jared Gooding’s lighting design that rationalizes this sudden style change. A flood of red lights provides a sexy atmosphere for a lengthy disco followed by the most verbally blunt sex scene I have ever seen. A strobe illuminates an otherwise pitch-black street fight that feels like a Jackie Chan movie where the enemies attack one at a time. This blending of style and manipulation of time makes it simple to follow a story that crams so much information into a script that connects worlds.

It’s hard to say what kind of story Rightlynd is. Is it a political thriller? Is it a rom-com? Why not both?  Lisa Portes directs these two narratives so that the political tension grabs our minds while the romance melts our hearts. Pac (Eddie Martinez) is a recently released felon who was lost in the prison system for a minor crime. As he rejoins a society that has moved on without him, he finds refuge in a local auto shop and love with a local politician. I love Pac. When watching the scenes between Nina and Pac, I felt strange not to be sitting in comfy clothes while making quick work of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. Eddie Martinez and Monica Orozco are the only performers who don’t take on the lives of other citizens. Through a whirlwind of characters, their performances are given growth and attention that gives us a stronger connection to them. Monica Orozco is indeed “inspiring as fuck” and Eddie Martinez is charming as hell.

There are many reasons why Chicago is referred to as the “Windy City.” Some believe that the term comes from its easily swayed politicians. A story rooted in politics is a perfect addition to Holter’s play series about modern life in Chicago. The Windy City blows Alderman Nina Esposito into the political machine, and she is stuck in the mechanisms. Ike Holter’s Chicago Cycle – which features seven plays – sets a collision course of style and character that explode into something lively with Rightlynd.  

Aaron Lockman

Rightlynd takes place in Chicago’s fictional 51st Ward, from which the play gets its name. The L doesn’t run in Rightlynd anymore, crime is on the rise, and crumbling apartment complexes and abandoned storefronts abound. People here feel crushed by the system: they are angry. But in playwright Ike Holter’s world, anger is a positive driving force in our current dystopia. Out of this bubbling sea of anger rises Nina Esposito (Monica Orozco), the one woman determined to change things around here. This play is the story of her struggle — not only to get herself elected Alderman, but to wield that power responsibly once she gets it.

Orozco is nothing less than a tour de force as our protagonist. Her Nina Esposito is forceful, ambitious, and badass — but she is also grounded, human, and terrified. Much of this comes from Holter’s dialogue (“I’m inspiring as fuck!” Nina shouts at one point), but Orozco’s accomplishment in keeping Esposito relatable cannot be understated. One monologue, where she spends a minute looking in the mirror after getting elected, deciding how she should address her constituents, is particularly powerful. It made me think of the anxiety I might have in her position, and makes us feel the weight on her shoulders.

Backing up Orozco is an ensemble that alternates between narrating Nina’s story and embodying a wide array of characters. The enthusiasm and passion for this play from every actor onstage is palpable. Holter’s language crackles with intent; each character is brazen and motivated and doesn’t have time for your shit. You can see how the writing and the actors fuel each other, and they are woven together with manic yet pinpoint direction from Lisa Portes. It’s exhilarating to watch, and funny enough that the drama never gets depressing.

We all know that power corrupts, but Rightlynd is more interested in the mechanics of that corruption. As Nina claws and scrambles her way to the top, she often uses shady methods. But we root for her at the beginning because she’s the underdog, because the change she’s fighting for is sorely needed, because the struggle and suffering of the 51st Ward is so real, so clear, so present, that we want to see her succeed. And while the play is careful never to deny the undoubtedly evil power structures — racism, poverty, wealth, corruption — that Nina is fighting, it also makes clear that not all problems in government stem from evil. Sometimes, it’s just plain old human folly. Nina is flawed. That makes her likable, but it doesn’t make everything she does forgivable.

In order to fight poverty and racism, it’s not enough to reject the system; you have to change it from the inside. But in order for Nina to get inside that system, she has to adapt to it. And by adapting to it, she becomes part of it. This is not a fun transition to watch, because of course the system that enables poverty and racism is not broken. It is working exactly the way it’s supposed to.

Rightlynd makes you experience the grueling consequences of gentrification firsthand — and as a middle-class white kid who is a part of that gentrification, this was a difficult but necessary watch for me. No other show I’ve seen in Chicago has made me so keenly aware of my own whiteness while watching it, and this is part of what makes it genius. Like its protagonist, Rightlynd is not afraid to offend its audience with loud opinions. It is an unabashed tale of the South Side told to a Lincoln Park audience, and it is intensely aware of this, and therein lies its devastating effectiveness.

Lonnae Hickman

I’m always intrigued by how writers balance the line between comedy and tragedy. Usually this is something that never works, since it’s hard to get the audience to laugh once they’ve seen something horrific. Vice versa, it’s hard to get the audience to feel intense emotion after laughing. Balancing this tightrope can be challenging. Yet, something powerful happens in Ike Holter’s Rightlynd when both laughter and intense tragedy are blended. The neighborhood of predominantly people of color is plagued by gang violence, but begins to feature hyper fantasy Hamilton-like musical numbers and rants about brunch that have significant symbolism.

Rightlynd is running at Victory Gardens until Dec 30. Directed by Lisa Portes, it explores themes of dark comedy, gentrification, politics, and a hatred of brunch. The story is driven by rhythmic dialogue as Nina Esposito (Monica Orozco), a determined woman, runs for Alderman to protect the neighborhood she loves: Rightlynd.

I was amazed at how much this show made audiences laugh. I laughed so hard at certain scenes that I cried. Lisa Portes’ direction and Holter’s writing intertwine to deliver comedic excellence, giving subtle winks to the people of color in the audience. The staging gets the audience to laugh at exactly the right moments. Not one moment was lost between the cast’s comedy and tragedy. Portes fully uses the stage to make sure audience members are being actively engaged, which reminds them, “are you listening?”

This is also accomplished thanks to a stellar cast consisting of all people of color, which reflects the diverse neighborhood of Rightlynd. I am going to mention all of them because they all deserve recognition: Monica Orozco, Sasha Smith, Eddie Martinez, Anish Jethmalani, Lakecia Harris, Robert Cornelius, and Jerome Beck. They all individually add to the show’s comedy and vibrancy, which isn’t always the case for shows this ensemble based. Rightlynd is Holter’s most ambitious and surreal show. While the plot devices don’t always make sense, the cast and direction pull the show in the right direction.   

Just because Rightlynd has comedic elements doesn’t mean that it doesn’t tackle hard questions. Often the writing is superimposed with harsh threatening music, sound designed by Mikhail Fiksel, that signals a warning to the main characters. There are also fast-paced transitions highlighting the whirlwind effect of politics. There’s another darker theme in the story with Pac (Eddie Martinez), a released felon “that nobody wants”. His statement “they forgot me” is true for many men of color; put in jail and forgotten. They are chewed up and spit out by the harsh and ineffective criminal system. Once out, like Pac, they are often given nothing to become successful. This subplot of the show is something we all need to continue to consider.

That being said, what is Rightlynd? Well…it’s everything that was and is Chicago. It’s everything that used to be in my hometown, Milwaukee. It represents the history of places like Pilsen, Wicker Park, and Boystown, as the play says. Neighborhoods full of citizens that lament the uselessness of brunch. Where people don’t put up with lies or “corporate talk”. Rightlynd is rich histories that are bulldozed down for posh cupcake shops, hipster breakfast places, and high rent. It’s areas that people fought intensely for and yet were still erased. Rightlynd asks who is to blame and can we ever really stop the inside politics of gentrification? The answer may be more grim than you think.

Rightlynd was recently extended and runs at Victory Gardens Theater until December 30th!

Director: Lisa Portes
Playwright: Ike Holter

CAST
Jerome Beck (Applewood/Denizen 1)
Robert Cornelius (Robinson/Denizen 5)
LaKecia Harris (Amena/Denizen 2)
Anish Jethmalani (Platt/Denizen 4)
Eddie Martinez (Pac)
Monica Orozco (Nina)
Sasha Smith (Manda/Denizen 3)

CREATIVE
Collette Pollard (scenic design)
Samantha Jones (costume design)
Jared Gooding (lighting design)
Mikhail Fiksel (sound design and additional composition)
Eleanor Kahn (props design)
Skyler Gray (dramaturg)
Jaq Seifert (fight director)
Breon Arzell (choreography)
Mara Sagal (production stage manager)

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