Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Topdog/Underdog
Shakespeare & Company
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Fred's review of What We May Be


Deaon Griffin-Pressley and Bryce Michael Wood
Photo by Daniel Rader
Topdog/Underdog, at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, through September 8th, is a double tour de force as it demonstrates excellence in performance through its startling and gripping script. This production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize winning play features Deacon Griffin-Pressley as Booth and Bryce Michael Wood as his brother Lincoln.

The two black men share a single-occupancy living space in an urban environment. Their home has a bed, bureau, chair, table and lamp. Set designer Cristina Todesco places a makeshift table downstage and it serves as a focal point. Lincoln dresses up each day (complete with white face) as Abraham Lincoln and makes money working at an arcade. Booth is adept at sleight-of-hand Three-card Monte, which he uses to hustle his way to cash. These young men care for each another, but not all of the time. Lincoln is five years older than Booth and it was long ago, when they were 16 and 11, that their mother and father left them. Coping with life has been daunting. Lincoln's wife has terminated the marriage relationship while Booth pins his hopes on settling in with a girlfriend even if it's far from a sure thing.

Lincoln is genuine in his affection for his little brother. As they grew up, he tried to guide and nurture Booth. But they are also rivals. Booth is animated, jumpy, eager to move along, pining for his girl. The characters' names were evidently doled out by their father as something of a joke. We learn, as the play evolves, that Lincoln's job is not secure. Booth thinks his older brother would be better off on the streets, trying to make money through card games.

Topdog/Underdog is about financial and emotional stability as each brother struggles to survive. Booth, for example, took less money to play Abraham Lincoln than did the white man who previously had the position. The play, which is pertinent today, appears to be set around the time it was written. Every so often, there's a tip-off: no smart phones are seen and there is a reference to a nearby pay telephone booth.

The actors are individually exceptional, with a knowing sense of one another on stage. On a certain level, their moment-to-moment acting is something of a harsh ballet, with staccato sequences carefully situated. Griffin-Pressley, as Booth, is exuberant and youthful. He is excited by an imagined upswing in his life. Wood's Lincoln is, at least initially, more subdued. He tries to be realistic. Lincoln (as costumed by Stella Schwartz) has been, each day, pasting on a beard, wearing a black hat and jacket, and sitting in the arcade as people take shots at him with play guns. He understands humiliation.

Director Reggie Life, acutely interpreting Parks' words, maximizes the staging and skillfully makes the production quite balanced.

In all, this is a searing, arresting evening of theater. Parks' writing ear is superb and the flow of dialogue is wonderfully natural. If it is draining to watch, that is amplified tremendously for two driven and gifted actors who, as the play ends, are fittingly and fully fatigued. The play is a physical and psychological masterwork which requires—and receives here—understanding and specific execution.

Topdog/Underdog, through September 8, 2019, at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox MA. For tickets, call 413-637-3363 or visit shakespeare.org.


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