Thursday 25 January 2018

Topdog / Underdog : karma, fate & race
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Suzan Lori-Parks' 2001 play title reflects not only the sexual positions when canines fornicate. Urban Dictionary says a top dog "navigates the social or business world with the perception of having everything under control" while an underdog, by comparison, is "kind of the opposite of popular or the best, but not exactly the worst".

And so it is with the two black brothers who temporarily share a murky walk-up crib in a single-room-occupancy (SRO) tenement. [Residents on each floor use a common toilet and sink at the end of the hall.] As boys the brothers were abandoned by their parents for reasons still a bit sketchy. The elder was named Lincoln (now late 30's), the younger Booth (now early 30's). Only folks with bottomless sardonic wit would do this to their black children. But so be it. Kicked out by his wife Cookie, Linc bunks in with Booth whose wannabe girlfriend is named Grace. He will win neither the girl nor such any such peace by show's end.

Older brother Lincoln (Michael Blake) tutors kid brother Booth (Luc Roderique) in the scam of 3-card-monte to hustle tourists. The bet doesn't pay off well in the end.
Mark Halliday photo
Lincoln's top dog status started when he became a 3-card monte sharpster on USA big city sidewalks. He gave up this 20-year career of hustling hundreds of bucks each day from tourists and suburban dads and welfare moms only after his buddy Lonnie got shot a year or so back. Now he's taken a job at an arcade shooting gallery. An imitation job from real life.  Or in his case maybe vice-versa.

Made-up in white face, he plays his namesake re-enacting over-&-over that fateful April '65 night in Ford Theatre when Abe was watching the English farce "Our American Cousin". People pay to shoot him in real time but with cap guns. Tight-lipped white housewives, he says, tend to shoot him again and again and again.

For his part, brother Booth says he wants to be a card sharp too, but he's more Texas-flop instead : two left hands, brother Linc taunts him. So boosting stuff -- shoplifting -- becomes Booth's forte. "I stole and I stole generously!" he brags.

What the show brings to the stage : Just one year into his reign, it would be too facile to blame every social ill in USA on President McDon. But there is no doubt that Ms. Parks -- the first black woman playwright ever to win a Pulitzer -- wanted to play the American bigotry card lit-&-fig back in Y2K just like McDon prides himself doing today. Just for opposite motives.

Abandoned black male brothers trying desperately to outwit, outsmart, outhustle, outrowdy one another and all whom they meet. Are their personalities as masque'd as Lincoln's character at the gun arcade? Is Booth still the helpless, hopeless deer in the headlights he was when Ma deserted him at age 11? Jealous of elder brother's topdog status, Booth nevertheless sniggers at his bro's day-job "dressed up like a dead president so some cracker-ass white man" can shoot him with a cap-gun. Still, Linc tells him, "it's a sit-down job with benefits".

Brother Booth makes fun of Lincoln's tophat and tails while trying to figure out how to out-hustle him.
David Cooper photo.
Luckily, Ms. Parks brings forth comic relief to dilute the aura of deterministic fatalism that enshrouds these likeable but desperate men. Maybe it's their pathos we laugh at. But without the verbal prattle between them jabbering over money, women and life's inevitable hustle, this could be just another dark and dreary Cain and Abel story writ au reverso straight out of any one of today's USA ghettos. 

Fact is as orphans who've fetched each other up on mean street, they know intuitively how the con often gets you more than being true or genuine : most troublesome when the con governs your life. Your life outside, your life inside. It's a form of irony. And irony often ends abruptly, usually about the time destiny plays itself out, Parks suggests.

Linc tells how one arcade patron put it this way : "Does all this stop when no one's watching, or does the show go on?" When Booth laughs, Linc reminds him of a core life truth : "You're only yourself when no one's watching." 

Production values that shine through :  One need but walk the stage-side aisle to appreciate set designer Shazuka Kai's naturalistic reproduction of a seedy single-room hovel that is home to this show. The details of such an orderly pigsty are astonishing to behold. Add to that environment the Carmen Alatorre costumes that match each mood and moral moment and there is no end of appreciation to not just their work but that of lighting expert Itai Erdal plus the unstoppable efforts put in by stage manager Rebecca Mulvihill. 

Acting pin-spots : As 3-card-monte mentor and older brother Lincoln, Michael Blake turned in what has to be in this season the most spectacular dramatic performance yet seen. His drunken tumultuous victory stumble in brother Booth's room after re-booting his card skills on the street outside Lucky's tavern went on for countless wholly-in-character minutes of believability and genuineness. The only word that comes to mind is Gosh! what focus'd sustained embracing characterization.

But not to take anything away from Luc Roderique as Booth. He was classic little brother. Bravado. Braggadocio. A wanker. A cowardly brute. His final scene with brother Linc clutching Booth's stocking-stuffer "inheritance" from Mom who deserted them 20 years back was as gripping as it was ghastly.

Who gonna like : This is naturalist drama. The 140 minutes of dialogue and action may not be altogether "necessary", theatrically, but they are what they are because Suzan-Lori Parks wants the audience to live each second of her characters' imagined realities.

Never mind the inevitable climax, given the names and roles the brothers play. This is a total immersion slice of poverty. Of life in a black American ghetto. Of a fractured black family whose siblings hold it together by habit and 20 years of co-dependence but whose symbiosis turns out to be as brittle and thin as a puddle that quick-freezes overnight. 

At show's end on opening night the performers were both visibly exhausted. And no few members of the audience, too. Because this is theatrical energy and creativity and imagination that is utterly breathtaking. Weary of rom-com stuff or Big Production splashes? Think for a change you might welcome total immersion baptism into the kind of morally dubious world Ms. Parks has created? 

If so then no question. You will thrill at the acting and the in-your-face theatrics on display here. You will find yourself shouting Bravo! and Bravo! and Bravo! yet again. 

Particulars : On until Februiary 11th @ BMO Stage, 1st Avenue.  Run-time two-&- a half hours including intermission.  Tickets & schedule information @ or by phone @ 604.687.1644

Production team : Director Dean Paul Gibson.  Set Designer Shizuka Kai.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Lighting Designer Itai Erdal.  Lighting Designer Julie Casselman.  Assistant Director Marie Farsi.  Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.

Performers :  Michael Blake (Lincoln).  Luc Roderique (Booth).


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