“Topdog/Underdog” deals some powerful cards

Jan 22, 2008 at 7:31 pm

(Actors Theatre presents “Topdog/Underdog” by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Will MacAdams. Continues through Feb. 3. For tickets, call 584-1205 or visit www.actorstheatre.org.)

Gestalt psychotherapist Fritz Perls coined the term “topdog/underdog” to describe a self-manipulation game. The perfectionist topdog is the voice of authority. The cunning underdog agrees with the topdog, but sabotages him. Both aspects are necessary to maintain healthy contact with the world, because they keep each other in check. Problems arise when one tries to dominate. The underdog usually wins, which causes depression or anxiety.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks explores this gestalt through two African-American brothers, one named Lincoln and one named Booth, who share a shabby single room with no running water and no telephone. Lincoln makes a living by playing his namesake, President Lincoln, at a seaside arcade. Here, members of the leisure class shoot at him with blanks. His younger brother, Booth, belittles Lincoln’s wage slavery, and prefers shoplifting and dealing three-card monte. Booth wants Lincoln to return to the hustle. Booth renames himself “Three Card.” Lincoln suggests Booth call himself Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder, instead. Shango represents African resistance against the enslaving white culture.

Their father chose their names as a joke, but the importance of the names becomes clearer as the play goes on. Parks plays with the effect of chance (represented by the cards) on the brothers’ lives and lays irony upon irony by portraying a black man in whiteface, as the president who freed the slaves. As Booth says, “the clothes make the man.” A man can be whatever he wants, even if his clothes are stolen.

The play’s title telegraphs its duality between the player and the played, the topdog and the underdog. In this world, it’s every man for himself, and blood is thinner than water. Even between brothers.
Bold use of lighting and sound effects round out the production of this thought-provoking play, and the audience was completely riveted by the show. It was as if the stage was floating in space, as the actors elevated their performances to a level rarely seen. Don Guillory’s Lincoln shows a wide range of emotion and humor. As Booth, Stephen Tyrone Williams is like a rough-and-tumble puppy. Both actors turn the mundane act of throwing the cards into a hypnotic dance.

The original historical Booth and Lincoln played out their own drama in a theater, which lends an eerie quality to watching these tragic characters who share their names in Parks’ creation. In history, as in life itself, perhaps there is no winner or loser, and the player is also the played. —Sherry Deatrick

Always ambitious Walden tackles ‘Misalliance’
(Walden Theatre presents “Misalliance” by George Barnard Shaw. Directed by Charlie Sexton. Continues through Jan. 26. For tickets, call 584-7777 or visit www.waldentheatre.org.)

George Barnard Shaw was ahead of his time. “Misalliance,” his clever dissection of — among other matters — marriage and family, espouses ideas that would likely have made many Victorian ladies gasp in horror. Shaw has essentially constructed more of a debate than a play, and in doing so, presents his insightful, often brilliant opinions wrapped up in wit. Walden Theatre applies its best effort to an intellectually challenging work, and it fares well despite uneven performances and some lethargic direction.

The action takes place during the course of one afternoon on an English estate in 1909, and centers on self-made man John Tarleton (Adam Brown) and his family. As the afternoon wears on, various guests appear to complicate matters, each representing an idea Shaw wants to discuss — aristocracy in Lord and Bentley Summerhays (Nathan Kaplin and Ian Jackson, respectively), socialism in Gunner (Danny Koenig), female independence in Lina Szczhepanowska (Anna Fearheiley).

The play is indeed talky, and I understand director Charlie Sexton wants to keep the focus on Shaw’s exposition. Yet he does his cast no favors by having them remain stagnant on the stage during several long exchanges.

For example, Mrs. Tarleton (Cara Liebert) and Hypatia (Olivia Douglas) sit for an interminably long time during an early interaction. Even more experienced actors would find it a stretch to keep an audience constantly engaged doing such.

While all of the actors are both well-cast and above-average performers (though I must exhort most to slow down), Brown commands the stage. His energy and polish as an actor belie his young age. Keep an eye on this one, Louisville.

“Misalliance” truly is just as whip smart today as it was 100 years ago. Despite the slight missteps in this production, Shaw is always worth seeing.