Booth and Lincoln are as different as two brothers could be. Younger brother Booth ( Stephen Rider) is hot-blooded and easily agitated. Booth rents out half of his room to his brother. It is that rent money that keeps his head afloat. Possessing an unearthly gift is for larceny, Booth is a natural thief who shuns the idea, much less the effort, of a getting a nine-to-five job. But what Booth really wants is to get into the game; another thing he cannot do without his brother’s help.
Lincoln ( Jed Reynolds) is a Black man playing Abraham Lincoln for an arcade attraction. Wearing white-face as part of his costume, he must sit poised and compliant, ready to re-enact the moment of President Lincoln’s assassination over and over again with the utmost historical accuracy. It’s “a sit down job with benefits” and the only cash income between the brothers. Lincoln hates his job, but he puts up with the degradation because it is a job; anything to not go back to “the game”.
The game is Three Card Monte, a low brow card scam designed to lure in unsuspecting tourists and passers-by. After a fast shuffle and some fast talking, the mark is asked to pick a card. Lincoln was the master at shuffling the winner out of detection and Booth wants in. But Lincoln has given up the game following the death of a close friend. Though he vows never to touch the cards again, hard times are seducing him back into the trade. Meanwhile Booth – who now wants to be called 3-Card, is determined to prove that he can and will learn the game on his own.
To say this play was enjoyable would be somewhat misleading. In fact the characters and circumstances used in crafting this tale are the stuff of classic tragedy – the dastardly fatal flaw. For that reason, a better describer would be to call Topdog / Underdog an intense, impressive production. Topdog / Underdog is an engrossing character study of the highest order.
Everything Booth does is an effort to combat the loneliness and banality that taints his very existence. His struggle to be seen as a man is actually a manifestation of his personal struggle with self-worth. The scars of his parents’ abandonment inform every relationship and decision that he makes. On the other hand, Lincoln is clearly more capable, emotionally and psychologically, of overcoming the wounds of the past – both those suffered against him, and those that were self-inflicted. His music and his strained sense of responsibility and love for Booth enables him to retain some humanity.
Director James Reynolds secures powerful performances from his company of two. There is a heightened formality in the performances that feel decidedly Shakespearean, a style choice that really suits the piece. Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize winning play is a delicately balanced collage of ridiculous peaks of levity and cavernous valleys of dolor, which Reynolds and Rider exploit with precision and striking fearless. These performances are simply extraordinary. Well Done.
Fremont Centre Theatre’s production of Topdog / Underdog exemplifies exquisite acting, intelligent, emotional writing and judicious direction. Bravo.
This is the return engagement for Topdog / Underdog. If you missed it the last time, don’t miss it again. Topdog / Underdog is running now through Feburary 26, 2011 at:
Fremont Centre Theatre
1000 Fremont Avenue
South Pasadena CA 91030
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
Admission: General $25. Students & Seniors $20.
Phone: 866.811.4111 (Theatremania)
Photo Credit: Dove Huntley.