'Topdog/Underdog' by Suzan Lori-Parks
Now onstage at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre
This ‘Topdog/Underdog’ tells the story of a broken family relationship with sincerity and ‘in-your-face’ veracity. It’s brash, it’s harsh, and it’s truthful.
Title’s meaning – Topdog is the most powerful individual in the relationship who can sometimes become frustrated because he must always remain on top. The underdog is the one who continues to resist the top dog at all costs.
American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks sets this ‘Topdog/Underdog’ in the winter. Lincoln (Sébastien Heins) and his younger brother, Booth (Mazin Elsadig), live together in the latter’s ramshackle apartment. Lincoln has been thrown out of his own apartment by his wife, Cookie. This living arrangement with Booth is temporary. Lincoln works at the local arcade as a white-faced Abraham Lincoln. Humiliating work: however, it’s the only source of income the two have at the present time. Further problems abound at Lincoln’s work when he finds out he will be laid off and replaced by a wax model.
When we first meet Booth at the top of the show, he is practicing Three Card Monte and hoping to become a card shark on the street, hustling as many people as possible. He’s not very good at it but excels at shoplifting. Lincoln was a card hustler many years ago but swore it off after one of his crew was shot dead over it. Lincoln thought he would be next. Booth admired how his brother could bring in the money playing cards.
The brothers have experienced troubled lives since they were teenagers, but there is always the sense that Lincoln and Booth care deeply about each other. Their parents abandoned them then, giving them each $500 for their inheritance. Each parent then went off with a new lover. Lincoln and Booth have had to learn to cope with racism, poverty, work, and women. They’ve also had to deal with the understanding of their names to each other. (John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in a theatre box).
Booth is infatuated with a woman named Grace and does his best to impress her by showering her with gifts that have been shoplifted. Lincoln’s relationship with Cookie has been tenuous. He suffers from depression, but Grace mistakes it as he is losing interest in her, which is why she kicks him out.
The story's events spiral downward as these two grown men continue to play ‘Topdog and Underdog’ with each other.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ comment on family identity and relationships is brash, bold, and harsh. It’s also blisteringly truthful in her play.
I sat in the immersive audience seating area (stage right) designed for this production. According to Canadian Stage’s website, this extended Orchestra seating allows the audience to experience the play as it was meant to be seen. It's harsh and gritty sitting this close to the action.
And it works.
Rachel Forbes’ set design resembles a wrestling ring with ropes all around. Periodically, the sound of the bell signifies the end of a wrestling round and an issue between the brothers. Booth’s squalid apartment appears unfit for anyone to live in, but it’s the best Lincoln and Booth can do for now. (An interesting note I learned when I got home and did quick online research is that President Abraham Lincoln excelled at wrestling.) Jareth Li’s solid lighting design eerily captures the dark shadows that light a wrestling ring before the participants enter. Additionally, Li’s shadowy lighting design finely underscores the growing intensity of anger between the brothers.
Tawiah M’Carthy directs with a scalding intensity and truthful boldness. At times, it’s uncomfortable to watch the sometimes-fractured relationship between the brothers boil far out of control. Their language is salty, colourful, and vivid. That’s the truthfulness of the moment. Brothers can sometimes be viciously nasty towards each other, and their vernacular will reflect in the heat of the moment.
The electrifying synchronicity between Mazin Elsadig and Sébastien Heins makes the two-and-a-half-hour production fascinating and thrilling to watch and hear. Both are fine performers who are well-trained in their craft. M’Carthy has blocked the two men to create exciting stage pictures of who controls the power at any moment.
Elsadig and Heins listen intently and respond naturally to each other. They are like wrestlers who wait and watch to see what their opponent will do before responding. One minute, there is the joking, good-natured cussing between each other. Often within seconds, that playful ribbing and cussing turn upside down and the brothers at times appear to come to fisticuffs since their lives have always been “dominated by competition, dominance and violence,” as Production Dramaturge Jordan Laffrenier and CanStage Associate Artistic Director had written in the programme.
Younger brother Booth sometimes idolizes his older brother, especially when he wants Lincoln to show how to manipulate the cards during Three Card Monte. Elsadig seamlessly taps into that admiration with the most remarkable ease within seconds. Just as quickly, Elsadig can shut off that emotional intensity of pride to one where his anger may get the better. Booth waits long for Grace to show up at his apartment to have dinner with him at one moment in the second act. When she doesn’t show up, the fury in Elsadig’s eyes and his physical stance shows he is ready to pop.
Sébastien Heins’ lanky stature adds an air of confidence. His Lincoln is self-assured and somewhat cocky since he knows those trigger issues that will set off his younger brother. When Heins first appeared as the white-faced President Lincoln, I felt an uneasiness that didn’t dissipate throughout the production. The ultimate showdown between Elsadig and Heins at the end of the play becomes engrossing. I observed the two men's every move and listened carefully to every word uttered to see where this confrontation would lead.
It becomes a fascinating and exciting look at two grown men who have often been down this road before. Where does it go this time? That’s the reason to see the show.
Final Comments: Good theatre abounds in the city. This ‘Topdog/Underdog’ is that good theatre we all need.
Running time: approximately two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
‘Topdog/Underdog’ runs until October 15 at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street. For tickets, call the Box Office at (416) 368-3110 or visit canadianstage.com.
CANADIAN STAGE presents ‘Topdog/Underdog’ by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Tawiah M’Carthy
Set Designer: Rachel Forbes
Costume Designer: Joyce Padua
Lighting Designer: Jareth Li
Sound Designer: Stephen Surlin
Stage Manager: Laura Baxter
Performers: Mazin Elsadig and Sébastien Heins