AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Presented by Marin Theatre Company
Boyer Theatre
397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, CA / (415) 388-5208

Reviewed by Judy Richter

When the Marin Theatre Company production of Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog" reached its wrenching conclusion on opening night, it was greeted by a stunned silence before the applause and shouts of "Bravo" erupted. That sequence signaled that something really special had just happened onstage.

There is much that's special about the play, for which Parks won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first and so far only Pulitzer of its kind awarded to an African American woman. There's also something special about the production of this two-hander so ably directed by Timothy Douglas.

For one thing, the two actors must take themselves and the audience through a roller coaster of emotions as an underlying struggle between the two characters sometimes changes the balance of power between them.

The two-act play is set in the here and now and focuses on two black brothers who are sharing a cramped one-room apartment with no running water and a community bathroom down the hall. Scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi sets the tone right away with the dingy apartment's water-stained walls, a rumpled, unmade single bed with clothing strewn all around it, a beat-up reclining chair, a couple of straight-back chairs and not much else.

The brothers are named Booth (Biko Eisen-Martin) and Lincoln (Bowman Wright) -- their father's idea of a joke. Booth, the younger brother, had been living there alone until Lincoln's wife kicked him out of their home. Booth gets the bed, Lincoln gets the recliner.

Booth is quite talented at shoplifting, a skill that provides the men with, among other things, a nice set of clothing. Booth also aspires to become an expert in three-card monte, a street gambling game that invariably soaks the poor sucker who succumbs to the lure of playing it, thus losing his money and enriching the con man manipulating the cards.

Lincoln was a master at the game until one of his colleagues was shot to death. He quit the con and got a legitimate job in a shabby arcade. He portrays President Abraham Lincoln on the night he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theatre in Washington. Arcade patrons pay to use a cap gun and pull the trigger while Lincoln, wearing white-face makeup, pretends to have been fatally shot. It's hardly a great job, but it gives Lincoln weekly pay that he and Booth use to pay the rent and other expenses.

For the most part, the brothers get along well. They often talk about their childhood and wonder why their philandering parents deserted them while they were still in school. Though emotionally scarred, somehow the brothers managed to survive and to avoid social workers. The tension rises, however, as Lincoln loses his job and Booth's girlfriend dumps him. With no money coming in, Lincoln considers returning to the card scam during the long, well delivered monologue that ends Act 1.

The profanity-laden play is a searing examination of fraternal love and rivalry that inevitably leads to tragedy for both men. Wright and Eisen-Martin are both brilliant in their ability to reveal both the subtleties of their characters and their relationship. Wright's Lincoln is the more low-key of the two, reflecting his greater maturity and life experience. Eisen-Martin's Booth is far more volatile and impulsive.

The production benefits from Callie Floor's costumes (such as the ragged black coat worn by Lincoln for his job), as well as Kurt Landisman's lighting and Chris Houston's music and sound. They make solid contributions to a provocative play that hasn't had a Bay Area professional production since the national touring production came to San Francisco in 2003. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival staged a memorable production of it in 2004. This Marin production surely will remain in its audience's memory for a long time to come.

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