The Shaw Festival's Studio Theatre continues to be the place to be for lovers of edgier drama in the summertime. That's where you'll find Philip Akin's alternately bouncy and bleak Canadian premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer winner, Topdog/Underdog.
In the 2001 play, Nigel Shawn Williams and Kevin Hanchard give top-notch performances as down-on-their-luck brothers and roommates Lincoln and Booth, who were named after American President Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, by a mischievous (and now missing) father. "It was his idea of a joke," Booth says as explanation.
Lincoln used to be a successful street hustler known for his skill at three-card monte until violence brought an end to his conman's confidence. Now, divorced and reduced to sleeping in a recliner in the corner of his brother's one-room apartment, he has a demeaning job that he sadly seems to have been destined for: working at a local arcade as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator.
Dressed in a stovepipe hat, strap-on beard and white make-up, Lincoln sits in a replica of the president's box at Ford's Theatre, and visitors pay to sneak up behind him and shoot him. Parks borrowed this unusual employment from an earlier, absurdist play of hers, The America Play, and its symbolic significance is not diluted in the realm of realism.
Booth, meanwhile, has swagger but little else. He's a professional shoplifter, or "booster," who is pretty good at boosting himself as well, claiming his ex-girlfriend Grace will come crawling back to him any moment. Though Booth's professed power over women and every other aspect of his life are delusions, he has nevertheless come to dominate Lincoln, who pays the rent yet lives in fear of being thrown on the street. The balance of power is beginning to shift, though.
Shawn Williams gives a masterful performance as a worn-out, dejected man who gradually dares to take his deferred dreams back off the shelf, while Hanchard is all lively bluster and guff as his younger brother – though he drops that mask, startlingly, at the end. While the two men play off each other well, Akin's production could use an injection of urgency, especially in the first half. With its languorous scene shifts, this feels like a lower-key Canadian production of an energetic American play.
In the grand tradition of dysfunctional family drama, Topdog/Underdog – one of the experimental Parks's most accessible works – features family secrets gradually revealed and a highly allegorical inheritance. But what keeps the intrigue going, after a gun is pulled early on, is the question of how these two brothers relate to their namesakes. Is American history about to repeat itself in these two African-Americans' lives? And if so, will it be as farce or again as tragedy?
There's also the verve of Parks's script, which finds poetry in profanity and streetwise slang, and has an almost musical swing to it. The three-card-monte patter that Booth practices, hoping to follow in his brother's footsteps, is the recurring, almost hypnotic refrain. "Pick-thuh-red-card-you-pick-uh-winner," Booth says. "Pick-thuh-black-card-and-you-pick-uh-loser."
With Topdog/Underdog, artistic director Jackie Maxwell has once again picked a winner for her festival's smallest space.
Topdog/Underdog runs to Aug. 27 at the Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
- Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
- Directed by Philip Akin
- Starring Kevin Hanchard and Nigel Shawn Williams
- At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.