Review: TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at Round House Theatre

Raw and affecting masterpiece runs through June 30.

By: Jun. 08, 2024
Review: TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at Round House Theatre
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TOPDOG/UNDERDOG puts audiences through the wringer – and we are better for it.

At Round House Theatre, director Jamil Jude stages a brilliant, heightened and deeply emotional interpretation of the Suzan-Lori Parks’ work that is as raw and affecting now as it was when it earned Parks a Pulitzer Prize two decades ago.

Round House’s vital and deeply moving staging of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG owes its punch and poignancy to its exceptional cast: Ro Boddie as the focused and contained Lincoln and Yao Dogbe as the youthful, heart-felt, emotional Booth. The show is sharp and visceral yet punctuated with many moments of laughter and glee – Boddie and Dogbe adeptly steer us through the wild swings of emotion.

Abandoned by their parents as teenagers, Lincoln and Booth have had to lean on each other through the years. As adults, they are locked in a cycle of love and resentment, tension and affection – a relationship reflected in the names they were given by their father as a joke. The two brothers riff on old habits and stories; there is a constant push and pull to their symbiotic relationship.

Review: TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at Round House Theatre
L-R: Ro Boddie (Lincoln) and Yao Dogbe (Booth).
Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

Lincoln and Booth are constantly trying to piece together their lives and their legacy. Who were they as children? What were their parents really like and why did they make the choices they did? Why did their parents walk away from a house, a house with dinner on the table and a family gathered around? The brothers’ photo album, a constant presence, is almost a character in the play. It is passed back and forth between the two and treasured as a relic of a time together and as a possible source of answers to all their questions.

The play poses the question: must we play the cards we are dealt in life? Here the cards are Three-Card Monte – the art and artifice, the shuffling cards and the patter of the street con game form the play’s backbone. Lincoln, the practiced card sharp, tells of tricking people into thinking they have a chance at winning even though it will never happen. Booth wants to master Lincoln's knowledge of card hustling to earn big money, while Lincoln, who has stepped away from that life, wants to work honestly at a job that will sustain them both.

The trust and vulnerability demanded by the roles is considerable – Boddie and Dogbe are an extraordinary team as Lincoln and Booth. They are skillful, charismatic and brutally honest. There is an intimacy to Round House Theatre’s performance space. The audience is never far from the two actors and their nuanced interaction.

Review: TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at Round House Theatre
Ro Boddie (Lincoln) in Topdog/Underdog.
Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

The set, brilliantly designed by Meghan Raham, shows two men who live in claustrophobic proximity to each other and lack any privacy. Loose porn magazines spill out from underneath Booth’s cot and a small folding screen masks nothing. With cardboard and milk crates the men strive to create a home. Xavier Pierce’s lighting design underscores this atmosphere and includes bold pops of neon at the windows.

Danielle Preston’s costume design is memorable from Lincoln’s Abraham Lincoln costume to Booth’s puffy coat from which an endless array of purloined goods emerge. Nick Hernandez’s sound design, Casey Kaleba’s fight choreography and Chelsea Dean’s properties were significant aspects of an extraordinary production.

Review: TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at Round House Theatre
Yao Dogbe (Booth) in Topdog/Underdog.
Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG is a contemporary work, but the modern masterpiece has classical roots with the eternal themes of fate, family, love and jealousy and the play’s heightened and rhythmic language.

After the final moment of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG on opening night, the lights went down and there was a quiet pause. The emotional audience took a moment to process all that we experienced with those characters. For a beat, not a sound was heard. Then, applause and a standing ovation for actors Yao Dogbe and Ro Boddie, director Jamil Jude, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks for their heart, intellect, trust and vulnerability to create such a full and riveting experience.

Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG by Suzan-Lori Parks is directed by Jamil Jude and produced by Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda, MD. The production runs through June 30 with performances Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm. For tickets, performance information, the Black Out Night on June 19 and events or special performances, attendance policies, and further information visit the company's website.

Review: TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at Round House Theatre
L-R: Yao Dogbe (Booth) and Ro Boddie (Lincoln).
Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.


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