“It was joke", Lincoln tells his younger brother Booth, why their father named them as he did. But there’s no joke about the desperate struggle to survive in the Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” in a wrenching, vivid production at Shakespeare & Company. The African American brothers teeter on tragedy’s edge in Booth’s rundown SRO, where Lincoln (Bryce Michael Wood) is temporarily staying. Lincoln works as a costumed Honest Abe in whiteface at a cheap arcade, where patrons get to play John Wilkes Booth on him. He used to be an ace at Three-card Monte until the best member of his street crew was fatally shot.
Booth (Deaon Griffin-Pressley) aspires to be the card hustler that Lincoln was, but he’s not that good. Lincoln brings home the pair’s meager earnings. Booth practices his card routine and shoplifts expensive clothes trying to impress his girlfriend Grace. Booth thinks he’s a big-swinging-dick and reminds Lincoln that he wasn’t man enough for his wife Candy, who left Lincoln and with whom Booth had sex. Their parents walked out on the boys when Lincoln was 16 and Booth 11.
Playwright Parks, who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this work, stretches way beyond issues of generational racism and what it means to be Black and male in America. (Coincidentally, now being staged in a fine production at Ancram Opera House is Tarell McCraney’s “The Brothers Size”, a dramatic heir of topical similarity to Park’s “Topdog/Underdog”.) The cruel abandonment Lincoln and Booth saw as children and festering resentments intensify in the cramped, squalid quarters. Lincoln and Booth are trapped not only by background but also by dark, deeply personal desperation. With a menacing turn of plot, the degradations the men have suffered become self-inflicted.
Both Mr. Wood and Mr. Griffin Pressley are excellent. As Lincoln, the more sensitive of the two brothers, Mr. Wood amazingly makes real complicated interior emotions. In contrast, Mr. Griffin-Pressley as Booth, the more volatile of the two, delivers an expansive, physical performance. Director Regge Life works Park’s script like a pressure cooker. The pacing is impeccable. Tension mounts; a feeling of violence prevails. The fixed set, designed by Cristina Todesco is spot-on; the collapsing, ornate ceiling of the seedy hotel room, with exposed charred lathing, suggests both urban decay and Southern ante-bellum rot.
The conclusion of “Topdog/Underdog" is devastating; it lands like a gut punch. Shakespeare & Company’s superb production shares Lincoln and Booth’s pain, powerfully, unflinchingly.
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