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REVIEW: ‘Topdog/Underdog’ at Shake & Co. a superb production about a desperate struggle to survive

Director Regge Life works Parks’ script like a pressure cooker. The pacing is impeccable. Tension mounts; a feeling of violence prevails.

Topdog/Underdog
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Regge Life

“It was a joke,” Lincoln tells his younger brother, Booth, why their father named them as he did. But there’s no joke about the desperate struggle to survive in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” in a wrenching, vivid production at Shakespeare & Company. The African-American brothers teeter on tragedy’s edge in Booth’s rundown SRO, where Lincoln (Bryce Michael Wood) is temporarily staying. Lincoln works as a costumed Honest Abe in whiteface at a cheap arcade, where patrons get to play John Wilkes Booth on him. He used to be an ace at three-card monte until the best member of his street crew was fatally shot.

Deaon Griffin-Pressley and Bryce Michael Wood in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘Topdog/Underdog.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

Booth (Deaon Griffin-Pressley) aspires to be the card hustler that Lincoln was, but he’s not that good. Lincoln brings home the pair’s meager earnings. Booth practices his card routine and shoplifts expensive clothes, trying to impress his girlfriend, Grace. Booth thinks he’s a big-swinging dick and reminds Lincoln that he wasn’t man enough for his wife, Candy, who left Lincoln and with whom Booth had sex. Their parents walked out on the boys when Lincoln was 16 and Booth 11.

Playwright Parks, who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this work, stretches way beyond issues of generational racism and what it means to be Black and male in America. (Coincidentally, now being staged in a fine production at Ancram Opera House is Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size,” a dramatic heir of topical similarity to Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog.”) The cruel abandonment Lincoln and Booth saw as children and festering resentments intensify in the cramped, squalid quarters. Lincoln and Booth are trapped not only by background but also by dark, deeply personal desperation. With a menacing turn of plot, the degradations the men have suffered become self-inflicted.

Deaon Griffin-Pressley and Bryce Michael Wood in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘Topdog/Underdog.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

Both Mr. Wood and Mr. Griffin-Pressley are excellent. As Lincoln, the more sensitive of the two brothers, Mr. Wood amazingly makes real complicated interior emotions. In contrast, Mr. Griffin-Pressley as Booth, the more volatile of the two, delivers an expansive, physical performance. Director Regge Life works Parks’ script like a pressure cooker. The pacing is impeccable. Tension mounts; a feeling of violence prevails. The fixed set, designed by Christina Todesco, is spot-on; the collapsing, ornate ceiling of the seedy hotel room with exposed charred lathing, suggests both urban decay and Southern antebellum rot.

The conclusion of “Topdog/Underdog” is devastating; it lands like a gut punch. Shakespeare & Company’s superb production shares Lincoln and Booth’s pain powerfully, unflinchingly.

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Topdog/Underdog plays in the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Sept. 8. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 637-3353 or go to shakespeare.org.

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