Pt. 2: What’s Your Position?: Topdog/Underdog

Erin Amlicke, Staff Writer

“Watch me close, watch me close now: Who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-thuh-red-card? I-see-thuh-red-card.”

Little Theater echoed with these lines as leather-clad Booth, played by College senior Hayden Gilbert, endlessly flipped card over card with the skilled hands of a dealer. The audience was entranced immediately. At two hours and forty-five minutes, last weekend’s production ofTopdog/Underdog, directed by Associate Professor of Theater and African American Studies Chair Caroline Jackson Smith, lacked nothing in length, and those who had the patience to sit through it witnessed a nearly flawless piece of live theater.

Combining the fun, hilarious and heart-wrenchingly serious, Topdog/Underdog follows the lives of two estranged brothers, Booth and Lincoln, portrayed by College senior Ralph Johnson, as they flit between empty romances, visions of wealth and musings of their deeply conflicted childhood. However, the brothers’ lives are soon consumed by anger and greed as they succumb to the seductive gamble of three-card Monte, a hustlers’ card game of chance. Unable to grapple with their grief after being abandoned by their parents in their youth, the brothers tumble toward the parallel fates of their namesakes, John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln, resulting in an expected yet shocking climax — Booth shoots Lincoln from behind in the play’s final moments.

The production’s minimalism in regard to props, set, lighting, sound and actors could have led it easily to failure. The barebones set, however, lent itself to Jackson Smith’s capable command of the small nuances that made this show truly stellar. Almost nothing distracted from the realism portrayed onstage; the brothers messily ate Chinese food and changed clothing constantly while chatting. In one successful moment, Lincoln strummed an imperfect but soulful tune on a weathered guitar. The song, like much of the production, wasn’t polished, but raw, real and emotional.

For anyone who saw the show, it was Gilbert’s portrayal of Booth and Johnson’s portrayal of Lincoln that carried Topdog to its incredible success. Unchecked anger and a bitter enthusiasm for crime characterized Gilbert’s frightening depiction of a young man slowly spiraling out of control. While these scenes reflected Gilbert’s strength as a dramatic actor, perhaps most enjoyable was watching him sing and dance in the more humorous moments.

Johnson likewise tackled comedy and tragedy with tremendous ease. He grounded the brothers’ relationship in a realism rarely accomplished in the theater. Certainly the most impressive instance came when Booth threatens to murder Lincoln. Smoothly transitioning from the shocked recognition of his brother’s violent capabilities, Johnson maintained the same dignity for his character’s final moments that he had demonstrated throughout the show.

While some may dislike the predictable outcome, Suzan-Lori Parks’s script is by no means short of anticipation and surprises. However, it was the three-card Monte that set the performance’s relaxed feeling while demonstrating the immense work that went into producing it. Gilbert and Johnson handled the cards with such ease that at times the audience members seemed to forget they were not watching magicians on a street corner. One night, a member of the audience even yelled out that he wanted to bet on the cards, illustrating how Topdog‘s audiences dispersed in a cathartic daze, transfixed by the show and its two outstanding actors.