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Luc Roderique, Michael Blake

How much are we masters of our own destinies? How are choices doomed by prejudice? And how do they change within a group, community or family? Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks forces audiences to engage these topics in her Pulitzer winning play, Topdog/Underdog.  

What kind of father would think to name his sons Cain and Abel? For all the connotations, naming them Lincoln and Booth is just as bad. The brilliance of the narrative teeters on whether the brothers can defy their seemingly fore-destined fates. 

Luc Roderique, Michael Blake

Lincoln mockingly states, “…it’s thuh first move that separates thuh Player from thuh Played. And thuh first move is to know that there ain’t no winning…It may look like you got a chance but the only time you pick right is when thuh man let you.”

Rapid-fire dialogue mimics the rapid flash of hands in a three-card-monte hustle that both brothers exploit. The elder Lincoln, though proficient at the craft, has sworn off cards ever since one of his crew was shot. Younger Booth continually goads Lincoln to teach him, although he lacks the patience and polish to pull off the scheme.

Michael Blake
[Michael Blake]

All exchanges take place in Booth’s squalid tenement where Lincoln is forced to bunk after his wife abandons him and he decides to “go straight”. 

Wanting to avoid further violence, Lincoln’s now doing “honest work”, impersonating his namesake at an arcade where visitors get to mock-shoot him all day. He’s a black man pretending to be white in order to earn a living. How’s that for layered irony?

On the other hand, violence is the only thing Booth knows. He is trapped in a state of juvenile delinquency, forever refusing hard work, boastful and proud of his shoplifted gains. 

Unable to control their downtrodden circumstances, the brothers wage a persistent tug of war for superiority within the ramshackle confines of their room. With reality seeping through the cracks, they’re unable to move forward as they perpetually dredge up the past. This will be their undoing as one last desperate bet reveals that the roles of the Player and the Played cannot be changed.

Michael Blake, Luc Roderique
[Michael Blake, Luc Roderique]

The first half of the play brews like a grave storm, gathering grudges and regrets — a futile struggle of sibling rivalry. Despite a known outcome, the audience is cornered with such anxiety and mental apprehension that the ending is a horrifying, shocking release.

This fraternal two-hander stars Michael Blake as Lincoln and Luc Roderique as his younger brother, Booth. A demiurge of the craft, director Dean Paul Gibson could have made no better pairing. The two men are like static and the associated discharge, at once unable to separate themselves and creating sparks in the process. 

They play off one other like a saxophone and jazz, a bow and arrow, or Cain and Abel. Gibson manages to elicit and distill the emotional gamut of despair from both actors. Blake projects the cool ease of a practiced swindler but exposes cracks in his shiny veneer during whispers in the night.

Michael Blake, Luc Roderique

Roderique is an imploding force of edgy naïveté, projecting the learned helplessness of a whiny child who doesn’t realize he needs to be a man, allowing selfish rage to cement the brothers’ fate.

Shizuka Kai tailors a set that exudes quiet wretchedness and depravity. Girly magazines stuffed under Booth’s bed and fusty, peeling wallpaper contrast with the genteel items that Booth “boosted” from shoplifting.

This is the first show I’ve attended at the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre. The intimate setting compels the audience to fully immerse in the brotherly struggle of dominance and dependence. The shared apprehension is thick and stinging.

Topdog/Underdog is a play of dialogue rather than action. It could easily be boring and tedious, like a game of solitaire. This production, however, has all the right cards on the table. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson, Topdog/Underdog opens Arts Club Theatre’s 54th season and continues through February 11

Photos by David Cooper.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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