Last night, the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Topdog/Underdog opened at the Arts Club Theatre Company Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre. The two act, two-hander is an intense two hours of rapid fire dialogue and emotions, written by Suzan-Lori Parks, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, and directed for The Arts Club by Dean Paul Gibson.
The tale of two African-American brothers abandoned by their parents as youths, the older Lincoln (Michael Blake) and the younger Booth (Luc Roderique) appear initially as opposites. Booth, a wannabe 3-card monte hustler, practicing in the confines of his dingy one room tenement, while Lincoln is the hard working brother, employed as an impersonator of his namesake, ‘Honest Abe’ Lincoln, albeit in white-face. However, we soon learn appearances, just like the cards, can be deceiving as we find out Linc was once a star card sharp working the streets and taking the marks for big money. Life on the streets became too ‘real’ for Linc so he gave up the cards and settled into a life of domesticity until his wife kicks him out. Now he’s staying with Booth, (or as he prefers to be called “Three Card”) and trying to keep the straight and narrow.
Meanwhile, Three Card hasn’t ever worked and survives on whatever his light-fingers can boost from shops and the back of trucks, always on the lookout for more. He longs to be the card hustler that his brother once was and forever on edge that he isn’t. Linc has that underlying craving of an addict trying his best to stay away from his vice while Booth is anxious to prove that he’s the ‘big man’ and can do anything better than his brother. While they hesitate to discuss it outright, the brothers have a sense of abandonment that they put up a brave “we’ve got each other” front they seem to be longing for the connections to each other, or for Booth to his off/on girlfriend, Grace, and to know why/where their parents went all those years ago. Through moments of humour and warmth, a battle of egos, stubborn wills and pent up anger bubble up to a heated climax.
Ms Park’s script combines rapid-fire, rap-like dialogue and the lengthy monologues of thoughts and feelings offset by moments of silence between brothers. There is a lot to communicate even in Topdog/Underdog even when nothing is said. Blake and Roderique brilliantly balance the sensitive emotions, outright aggression, and colourful language that comes along with them, with an ability to say so much with just a look or slight movement. Roderique brings authentic vigor and bravado to the younger Three Card and Blake has a downtrodden physicality to his role in the first act then transforms to an almost reckless, “free at last” energy to the second. Both actors keep the audience mesmerized and emotionally invested in the brothers, building up, then breaking, the tension with a well placed laugh, then building it up again. Set designer Shizuka Kai detailed one room apartment set has an amazing amount of detail and visually sets a scene of urban realism, while the hip-hop soundtrack aurally furthers the sense of place, perfectly completing the world these two characters inhabit.
In spite of being just one room and two actors, Topdog/Underdog packs so much onto its stage that it’s worth seeing multiple times (if your emotions can take it) as there is so much to see and hear.
Topdog/Underdog is playing at the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre until February 11, 2018 so you’ll have plenty of time to see it more than once. Visit artsclub.com for tickets