By Russ Bickerstaff
Playwright Suzan- Lori Parks weaves a certain alchemy out of the deceptively simple. Two brothers in a room with three cards. One of them is named Lincoln. The other is named Booth. The drama spills out like an equation breathing the calculus of human need. Topdog/Underdog conjures powerful complexity out of the substance of minimalism. Renaissance Theaterworks continues its season with a primal production of Parks’ story.
Tall, dark Chike Johnson stars as Lincoln. Johnson is suitably dichotomous as a man who makes a living pretending to die. The well built Wayne T. Carr plays his little brother Booth. Carr is appropriately desperate as a man who can’t seem to stop pretending to live. In the course of the drama, the two actors strike an impressive dramatic balance. The two characters play a wide array of different roles for each other as fortune and misfortune reach beyond destiny to define mutual identity.
Lights rise on the first act and we see Booth setting up the classic Three-card Monte in the shabby confines of a very dilapidated apartment. Scenic Designer Nathan Stuber has deftly pasted together an elegantly shabby backdrop for the action. There’s a stained recliner on one side of the set and a bed on the other. Right there in the middle, on a makeshift table made out of a milk crate and the back of an old Monopoly board,
Booth is throwing three cards in the best flurry he can manage. At first, it looks like Carr hasn’t studied the art of what he’s doing all that closely, but the over eager passion in his voice as he recites the monologue of the scam would suggest otherwise. It’s not he, but his character who isn’t adept at what he practices. This lack of skill is going to be a central focus of much of the conflict that transpires for the rest of the play.
Lincoln and Booth have a relationship that is both friendly and antagonistic. Throughout much of the play, Booth is trying to nudge Lincoln back into the life of a Three-card scam artist. Those three cards keep calling both actors back to the dark, dangerous shadows of quick money. The actual scam itself is portrayed remarkably well throughout the play. We see Johnson pick up the cards for the first time and he’s struggling to get the old magic back. He’s not as quick as he should be. By the end of the show, his movements are quick and precise. The drama plays out in intricate patterns amidst the constant call of the cards and the mantra-like repetition of the incantations of a seasoned Three-card artist. This one’s worth seeing in a very big way. Keep your eyes on the cards . . . the black card could pop up at any time. Stay away from the red ones . . . VS
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Topdog/Underdog runs now through February 4th at the Broadway Theater Center’s Studio Theatre. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 291-7800 or online at www.r-t-w.com.