The work of Kent Gash from Atlanta's Alliance Theatre was seen here a year ago September in a production of "Pacific Overtures" his theatre shared with the Cincinnati Playhouse and the North Shore Music Theatre in the Boston area. His current production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer-prize winning "Topdog/Underdog" has had a similar journey up from Atlanta. Last month the show played in Providence at Trinity. Lest someone decide this project was too easy compared to doing a spectacular musical in three entirely different theatres, Gash has his two actors, Joe Wilson Jr. and Kes Khemnu alternate roles from night to night. At the official opening in Newton on Feb. 25th, Wilson played Lincoln, the older brother whose current job is serving as a target in an arcade dressed as the assassinated president wearing whiteface. Booth, his younger brother, was played by Khemnu, a much more physically imposing actor. The two reverse roles each day. Notes on the role reversal appear toward the end of this review. Gash's production is also distinguished by a unique set by Eugene Lee, Trinity's resident designer. The square platform is surrounded on three sides by a steel cage, against which the actors may lean or hurl things. This literal fourth wall barely contains the intensity of the show.
The set adds a concrete metaphor to Park's image of these two brothers trapped by circumstance in a squalid room. The show's other metaphor is the three-card monte swindle as practiced on the street. A while ago, older brother Linc was head of a successful crew, married and well off, at least in street terms. He quit the game when his stick man, the one who worked the crowd, was shot. Little brother Booth supports himself by shoplifting, but wants to change his name to Three-Card and be as successful as his brother, who now drinks himself to sleep nightly. If one were looking for antecedents to Parks dramatic vision, Beckett and the Absurd would be high on the list, with a further nod to Artaud's bleaker Theatre of Cruelty. Her storytelling would seem much more derivative, however, if it weren't for her compelling use of language and the rhythms of dialogue.
As in with most of her plays, and a good deal of modern drama, the action onstage occurs near the end of the narrative, so that much of the interplay between these two characters comes from rehearsing the past, thereby filling the audience in. This technique is much closer to both contemporary prose and the cinema. Parks leaves several important implications unanswered. Did Booth kill Lincs stick man when the younger brother messed up trying to do that job and was called on it? Did Linc kill their father when he could no longer stand his drunken meaness? How deep does this tragedy go? There's not much development, mostly revelation, which makes interested reading and contemplation, but sloppy drama.
In fact, both acts of this piece are rather static, depending on reoccurring actions in the meager lives of these characters. It's to the credit of Gash and his two fine actors, Wilson and Khemnu, that the audience brought along to the play's contrived, but inevitable final moments. There's even a sense of the Grand Guignol attitude that wasn't fully achieved in the New Rep's previous production, "Quills". The show's lighting by Liz Lee, from Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts, the UNIMA headquarters, uses footlights around the cage and an open work floor which can send light from below, plus a full complement of theatrical instruments to make this cage set into a display, echoing Lincoln's employment. That character, incidentally, was first explored by Park's in her peripatetic "The America Play" which was presented somewhat fitfully by the ART in 1994. One suspects that her Pulitzer, awarded after her second nomination in two years, was given for originality over the more conventional competition.
Unlike George Wolfe's New York productions, which used a sound track ranging from hip-hop back through rock and jazz to the blues, Justin Ellington has given this show a blues background which binds the action together. Atlanta-based costumer Alvin Perry has given the brothers believable clothes without slipping into the parody styles of the street or worrying about the latest trend. The tenement room setting has a squalid realism, with just the right props, though black clad minions doing rearranging things during the scene changes is a minor distraction. Perhaps some local production will find another option, for this play should be seized upon and wrestled with for years to come.
One of the problems is Parks' damning depiction of these denizens of the street, which might be taken as racist in other circumstances, but was probably intended to be cautionary. Named by a drunk of a father, the fate of Lincoln and Booth was sealed very early in their miserable childhood, and like the brood in Park's "In the Blood" there's little chance they could have turned out otherwise. So perhaps the author shares an almost Calvinist sense of determination with another Pulitzer awardee, Sam Shepard. "Topdog/Underdog" isn't "True West" however, though some ingenious producer could probably attract attention by running both plays in rep, using the same cast, and alternating roles in both. It's a risky gimmick, however.
Alternating the roles produces an interesting gamble with the show's theme, but the bet pays off. As Lincoln, Kes Khemnu, may be playing a more successful version of the violent younger brother in the Clubs version, or perhaps some image of the father who abandoned them. Joe Wilson Jr., on the other hand, gives us a Booth with a different sort of affliction. His Lincoln in the Clubs version hewed close to the original concept done in NYC, as wrestled into shape by George Woolfe. But in the Diamond alternative, seen Feb. 26th, Wilson displays the younger brother's fragile mental state throughout the performance, resulting in a much subtler creation. This supports the finale better, but against Khemnu's more resigned Lincoln makes the action choppier. With either cast, however, Gash's firm hand makes either version well-worth seeing.. So you pays your money and you takes your pick. Clubs or Diamonds are both winners, though whichever one is seen first will color one's view of the play. Back to back may not be the best way to do it.
The New Rep was planning to open the final show of their season, Sondheim's "Into the Woods", at their new home in the Watertown Art Center, constructed in one of the old buildings at the decommissioned Watertown Arsenal several miles from their present location. While their theatre would be more or less ready, too many details at the Center won't be ready, so they will have one final extravaganza in Newton Highlands. The production will involve a number of award-winning actor-singers headed by Nancy E. Carroll, Todd Alan Johnson, Leigh Barrett, Miguel Cervantes. etc, a first rate music director and pit, and what promises to be an ingenious set concept to their intimate thrust. There were 19 IRNE nominations for the New Rep for 2004; this coming effort should add to their total for 2005.
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