TOPDOG/UNDERDOG

Arts Club Theatre Company, Goldcorp Stage, until February 11th

Photo: David Cooper

My Two Pence

My Two Cents

By Penny Warwick

 

Topdog/Underdog is a break from Arts Clubs usual grand fare of polished and pristine productions. A two-hander written by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan Lori Parks, it unfortunately gets too wrapped up itself to allow an audience into its claustrophobic and troubled narrative of two brothers, Lincoln and Booth.

 

Immediately, the stage is perfectly designed and dressed by Shizuka Kai to take us into their world. The detailing on the breaking edges of the walls serve double-duty in allowing us to see into the tiny dwelling where they both live, whilst also representing the damaged and crumbling nature of their relationship. The suspended window pane adds for beautiful framing (depending on where you are seated), and the vintage bicycle playing card wallpaper was just subtle enough of a nod whilst adding the importance of ‘the game’ into the fabric of the set itself. I loved the clever lighting design by Utai Irdal. The outside light streaming through the windows changing in angle to indicate the passing of time was beautiful to watch and a very effective device. Carmen Allatore and Julie Casselman’s costume and sound design respectively are fitting and adequate to the needs of the stripped down nature of the production.

 

I found the script itself problematic and long. The audience is lead through a series of monologues and duologues (the latter always being the more interesting) which can seem rambling and unnecessarily extended. There is a lot of repetition and exposition. In this way I didn’t really feel anything was open to discovery or query. Also, the ‘throwing of the cards’ sequences took a long time, and were so frequently repeated that one could have thought you had stumbled into a demonstration about the practice itself. Luc Roderique (Booth) brought nearly all of the comedic moments to light which were welcome given the overall heaviness of the piece, whilst Michael Blake (Lincoln) had the unenviable task of tightrope walking his character between loving-nurturing older brother and completely self-serving and arrogant. Both of the brothers are written in such a way that we get glimpses into their better selves which are then shattered. So much of the script was delivered with heightened emotion that when indeed there was a ‘dramatic’ apex it was lessened. I found a lack of nuance and subtlety throughout – hard to say whether this was a directed choice or that of the actors.

 

The production certainly has impact, however, I'm not sure if it matches the intention.

By Daphne Cranbrook

 

Suzan Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog is an immersive look into the lives of two adult brothers, abandoned by their mother and father years ago, struggling to make their way through an urban world of gambling, women, and arcade assassinations. The brothers, named Lincoln and Booth by their father as a joke, are constantly in competition, whether it be over cards, women, work, or money. Their path together is tricky and treacherous, but they’re all the other has.

 

Michael Blake (Lincoln) and Luc Roderique (Booth) face a challenge in this script, to be sure. It is a high-stakes, high-energy kind of a show, where emotions turn at the drop of a hat, and you’re never quite sure who’s on whose side. I applaud the actors for the commitment to their roles; being a two-hander, this show begs a lot from them. The script contains a heavy amount of exposition, which is hard to communicate naturalistically with an ensemble onstage, let alone two actors. The moments where only one actor was present, soliloquizing about this or that, were plentiful. They had the potential to be moving and engaging, however, I was often struck by how much “telling” was happening. I can’t necessarily fault the actors for this; after all, they didn’t write their lines. But I could also imagine that in the hands of perhaps more nuanced or creative directing, these moments wouldn’t have seemed so jarring.

 

The set design by Shizuka Kai was perfection: cramped, dingy, and thoroughly lived-in, just what you would expect given the context. Same goes for the subtle but stunning lighting by Utai Irdal, who managed to convey the assaulting brightness of an inner city, while also adding depth to the story with little touches of nuanced illumination throughout.

 

There were definite moments of truth and genuine connection in this piece. Those were the moments I cling to and hope future audiences can find, too, because I think this story has a lot to say about family, connection, loss, and memory. Hopefully these moments will develop and multiply as the show plays on.