BWW Review: TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at TheatreLAB: A Powerful Portrayal of the Human Dynamic
Though I hardly consider myself to be the most religious person in the world, I do believe that the following passage succinctly elucidates upon not just the given circumstances of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG but also the dense symbolism and mythical allusions that are subtly-laid within the underpinnings of Suzan Lori-Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning oeuvre:
"Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." - Proverbs 16:18
The Bible itself, in terms of narrative, is, in the most simplistic terms, a story of struggle - the objectives of one party pitted against the countering maneuvers of another. Indeed, most well-composed tales depict fascinating characters immersed in conflict: a tactical discipline at engendering an emotional response from the reader/spectator. And the Bible, like most other forms of religious literature, relies heavily on archetypes: the embodiment of a prototypical persona that transcends time and culture - the wise old man, the caring grandmother, the dashing prince, the virtuous maiden, the malevolent deity...
... or even that of sibling rivals.
While the Bible has no shortage of squabbles among such opportunistic groupings - Esau against Jacob, Rachel against Leah, Cain against Abel (obviously), or even that in "The Parable of the Prodigal Son" - the meritocratic duels between these two (or more) units of concomitant heritage have a timeless and relatable quality among the collective social (and often personal) cognizance.
In the case of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, the audience is presented with two African American brothers who spar over each other's momentary gains despite how meager or tellingly fictitious such gains prove to be as the play progresses. Living in a single, dilapidated domicile on scant means, these brothers named Lincoln and Booth (a deliberate "joke" put upon them by their long since abandoned parents) engage in an ever-constant display of dominance. This aggression culminates into a form of psychological warfare where the battlefield is a few strategic hands of "three-card monte." With "the dealer" against "the mark" - literally and metaphorically, on and off the card table - it is the hubris of the intractable and unapologetic protagonists that makes the wafting atmosphere more volatile and haunting with each passing protestation over the other brother's seemingly dubious claims or adverse actions.
Be advised: this is a play involving violence and firearms as well as some very strong language. It is also rather long and, in the hands of less capable artists, this play could easily be produced with protractedly boring results.
That is not the case here, I'm happy to say.
TheatreLAB has employed some master thespians to execute this piece with stellar craftsmanship.
Jamar Jones' portrayal of Booth, the younger of the two siblings, is a rollercoaster ride of vigorous fervor. And Jeremy V. Morris' deceptively docile and calculating performance as Lincoln provides the perfect counterweight to his costar. There is never a false moment between the two; the piece itself feels like a "fly on the wall" documentary between two viscerally real people.
Director Katrinah Carol Lewis should be commended for dissecting the moments of emotional distinction throughout this vast play. Given that this piece is only one setting with two characters, it would be very easy to slip into a "one note," lackluster presentation. Ms. Lewis, on the other hand, gives the audience a welcome cavalcade of varying emotional levels throughout, leaving the processing action ever-fresh and unpredictable.
She has also provided the space with some interesting and unexpected light and sound indulgences, courtesy of operations by stage manager Morgan Howard, lighting design by Michael Jarett and sound design by Kelsey Cordrey. Even Todd Schall-Vess' special effects apparatuses make a brief statement!
While the story of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG will enthrall some and give pause to others given how real it feels, my appreciation for the work - apart from TheatreLAB's spot-on production - stems from the classical themes it invokes.
It also highlights on the dangers of people being overzealous in their thoughts, words, and/or actions while manically playing the unsteady game that is life. Indeed, such narrow-mindedness has been to the detriment of many historical figures, living or dead.
Plus, I have a brother; and we haven't always gotten along...
Just teasing, man! Love you, buddy!
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG plays through June the 9th, 2018 at TheatreLAB