Director Kent Gash, Alliance Theatre's Associate Artistic Director, was also responsible for last season's 3-way collaboration that brought the stunning Elliot Norton and IRNE Award winning Pacific Overtures to our North Shore Music Theatre. This time out he's forged an inspired collaboration with Trinity Rep's resident designer Eugene Lee (Tony Award winner for Wicked, Candide and Sweeney Todd) to provide Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize winning play with a provocative overriding conceit.
The entire playing space is a sturdy, steel mesh cage enclosing the barely habitable flophouse room where brothers Lincoln and Booth act out against the chafing "ties that bind" and allow their minor irritations to escalate into major grievances. Probably the last thing this play needed was another metaphor; but the visual impact of the set, along with the sometimes surreal lighting of Liz Lee and the bluesy music composed by Justin Ellington (both Atlanta based), keep the visual/aural senses alert.
The title aptly describes the brother's jockeying for sibling power and position to determine "who the man" as well as the inner battle each forges to make his way in the world. Their names, a joke bestowed by a long absent father, resonate on several levels as well. For starters, Lincoln's subsistence level job is impersonating - complete with white face - the great emancipator in an arcade game not unlike the shooting gallery imagined in Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins. The joke becomes a historical imperative as soon as we know Booth packs a gun under his pillow along with his girly magazines.
The most compelling metaphor in Topdog/Underdog, however, is Three-Card Monte, the con game Booth is trying to perfect in emulation of his older brother's glory days when Lincoln was at the top of his game. The ruse is every bit as mesmerizing onstage as it is on the street corner. I was easily taken in by the inevitable bait and switch of the cards and was just as readily hoodwinked by Lincoln's wiliness to inflict a lesson on Booth that wasn't the one he asked for.
The other notable feature of this production, besides the unusual set, is a casting stunt similar to what Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly did in the 2000 Broadway production of True West. While those two actors alternated roles every third performance, Joe Wilson, Jr. and Kes Khemnu switch for each one. The "Diamonds" cast (which I saw the evening of March 2nd) features Wilson as Lincoln and Khemnu as Booth. Each has such a striking presence and offers such distinctive character movement and rhythm, it would be fascinating to see them reverse roles (the "Clubs" cast).
One thing both actors possess that serves either role well is a Shakespearean deftness with language. This enables them to do full justice to Parks' jazz-inspired riffing on ideas and give an improvisational sheen to what are obviously very carefully chosen words.
Topdog/Underdog has been extended through April 2nd at the New Repertory Theatre, 54 Lincoln Street in Newton Highlands (on the Riverside D - Green Line.) Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm; Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 4:30pm & 8:30pm and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm. There is a Wednesday matinees on March 23rd at 2:00pm. There is an audience discussion with the cast following each Sunday afternoon performance. Tickets are priced from $30-$48; Senior, student and group discounts are available, as well as student rush. (Theatregoers wishing to see both casts are offered a $10 discount on the second ticket order.) For tickets and further information: www.newrep.org or 617-332-1646.
Photo: Christopher Oquendo
Set in an immigrant enclave near Tampa, Florida the play focuses on one family's struggle to keep their hand rolled cigar business afloat in the face of the impending depression, the rising popularity of cigarettes and the inevitable mechanization of the business.
At the top of the play the patriarch of the family (Dick Santos) is betting away the factory with promissory notes to his half brother Cheché (Robert Saoud) as he loses one game after another at the local cockfights.
Meanwhile, his wife (Bobbie Steinbach), their married daughter Conchita (Melinda Lopez) and her silly younger sister Marela (Angela Sperazza) are at the pier to greet the new lectore (Liam Torres) whom they've hired to read to them as they work. This was a long-standing custom in Cuban factories, grounded in a reverence for both storytelling and education, before the encroachment of loud machinery and a fear of unwelcome political indoctrination rendered them obsolete on the mainland.
The ladies are delighted to hear that Juan Julian will read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a 19th-century novel about a married woman who tragically falls in love with a romantic seducer. The choice befits a business where the product is often named for a tragic romance, and the snowy Russian landscape offers a welcome diversion from their tropical climate.
It doesn't take long to see where this is headed, once we learn that Conchita's husband (Diego Arciniegas) is openly having an affair and that Cheché's wife ran off with the last handsome young reader they hired. And when a gun is produced during some merrymaking we know the tenor of how things will end up.
Jáquez and his designers (Susan Zeeman Rogers on sets and Linda O'Brien for lights) make the best use yet of the wide and shallow Roberts Studio space. The raised stage helps tremendously with sight lines, and the simple factory with a colorful sky and tropical foliage beyond its windows is lovely. It's also worth noting that watching the cast work with the tobacco leaves and antique rolling equipment is delightful and that the Roberts' ventilation system takes care of their product demonstration!
This cast has some difficulty pulling off Cruz's non-naturalistic language. When his characters veer off into imagery - aiming for, but not achieving, the stage poetry of Tennessee Williams - it's almost as if this were a musical being performed without the music. Possibly doing the play with accents would better suit the cadence and lyricism of these characters' speech patterns.
I'm not sure even that would help when Juan Julian has to say, "...living in a city is like living inside the mouth of a crocodile, buildings all around you like teeth" or when Conchita tells her husband, "... I gave you a cigar I had rolled especially for you, and when you smoked it, you told me I had slipped into your mouth like a pearl ... And the words lingered in the air like a zeppelin...".
The other thing this play begs for - though given the economic state of the arts in this country it's wishful thinking - is some additional ensemble members to flesh out the telling of its tale. This might have allowed Cruz to set his family tragedy against the more interesting, wider political background he only alludes to.
Anna in the Tropics now through March 26th presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company in the Roberts Studio Theatre of the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston's South End. Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 4pm & 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $35.00 - $40.00 depending on the performance with a $5 discount for seniors. Student Rush is $10 with a valid college ID, at the box office only, one hour before curtain, subject to availability. The BCA box office phone is 617-933-8600. For more information about SpeakEasy Stage Company go to www.speakeasystage.com and to order tickets online visit: www.BostonTheatreScene.com.
Photo: Craig Bailey - Perspective Photo