" . . . pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. . . ." —Polonius, Hamlet, act II, scene 2
There appears to be any number of Ike Holters. On the one hand, he's written topical plays about the Chicago Public Schools crisis (Exit Strategy) and the blue fear in Chicago neighborhoods ( The Wolf at the End of the Block); on the other, a historical one about the Stonewall riot (Hit the Wall), a creepy one about the reunion of three friends in a remote cabin (Loom), a comic-bookish one about misfits teaming up to kick bully ass (Prowess), and a plain old excellent drama about the return of a bad-penny hipster who likes to call himself Lynx (Sender).
This being America in the year 2018, Holter's eclecticism has been framed in terms of his blackness. A recent feature on him in Newcity says, "Pushing back against what historically white institutions expect from a writer of color has been an ongoing struggle in Holter's career."
I don't doubt that's true, and I hope he wins the struggle, because his work is lots of fun to watch. Holter's large, he contains multitudes—and he's really into playing with genres.
Especially pop genres. His latest, The Light Fantastic—getting its world premiere now in a witty production directed by Gus Menary for Jackalope Theatre—takes him into horror, satanic division.
Set in rural Indiana, a place Holter clearly regards as a horror in itself,The Light Fantastic centers on Grace, a bad penny like Lynx of Sender, but without his vaunted charisma. In fact, only one person is willing to celebrate Grace's tail-between-her-legs return to her hometown after years away: Eddie, a sad-sack bartender and fuck buddy who's always had a love-you-in-spite-of-yourself thing for her. Grace's old pal Harriet, now a local cop, still harbors a grudge over something that happened back in high school involving unauthorized use of the PA system. Even her eccentric, dying mom is more than a little wary of her. And Grace doesn't blame them. "I was mean and I was spoiled," she admits, "and I was a rotten, rotten bitch." Her reappearance betokens a weary contrition.
Thing is, it may be too late for atonement. Because there's somebody else besides Eddie ready to welcome Grace back—the one who's been getting into people's heads lately, causing them to do awful things like gut 16 grazing sheep. He calls himself Rufus, and Grace will have to reckon with him.
Holter's script is shot through with frustrating omissions and ambiguities. What exactly was the terrible thing Grace told everybody about Harriet in high school? We don't know. And precisely what crimes did she commit during her sojourn in the wide world? We never find out. Is Rufus already in town when Grace arrives or did he follow her there? Or is he everywhere at once and merely noticed her, a la the Mothman—perhaps by picking up the scent of her moral rot? The evidence is inconclusive. Holter seems more interested in piling on the genre tropes than working out the details, but that's where the devil is, so to speak.
The lack is far from damning, though, because Holter's writing is so clever, his appetite for cultural reference so huge (even Ghost gets in there), and his zest for make-believe so contagious. Most playwrights communicate the sense that they're out to entertain you; Holter makes you feel like he's entertaining himself and giving you the chance to tag along.
Menary and his large staff of designers pick up nicely on that energy. More often than not this staging comes across as the most sophisticated piece of backyard theater you're ever likely to see, complete with scary-cool effects and faux-Hollywood titles achieved on a budget. It's a testament to the whole concept of Chicago storefront theater that Jackalope can simply and convincingly pull off a classic horror-film moment like the one where a malevolent presence makes everything in the house move on its own.
The cast is equally convincing. Paloma Nozicka makes it easy to believe in both Grace's former rebelliousness and her current exhaustion; she seems awfully in-your-face, however, for someone raised in the ethos of small-town Indiana. Diego Colón, meanwhile, is a perfect teddy bear as Eddie. Brianna Buckley effectively combines self-discipline and rage as Harriet the cop, making her all the more volcanic when she gets her opportunity to let go. Janice O'Neill pretty much defines "prickly" as mom. Tommy Malouf provides welcome relief from the ambient acrimony as a genuinely civil therapist. And Andrew Burden Swanson has enough of the Paul Bettany in him to give Rufus just a touch of the (irritably) tragic. v