Review: Topdog/Underdog (Obsidian Theatre)

Nigel Shawn Williams and Kevin Hanchard in Topdog/Underdog. Photo by Emily Cooper

Obsidian Theatre opens its 12th season with the Toronto premiere of Topdog/Underdog through December 4, 2011.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002 and enjoyed a successful run on Broadway. Obsidian Theatre produced Topdog/Underdog as part of this year’s Shaw Festival where it played to raves. The production transfers to Toronto for a limited run at The Theatre Centre.

The play takes place in a run-down New York City apartment and explores the complex relationship between two brothers. Older brother Lincoln (Nigel Shawn Williams) is recently separated from his wife, he makes a living by playing Abraham Lincoln in white face at an amusement arcade. His brother, played by Kevin Hanchard, is named Booth (as in John Wilkes Booth, their father’s perverse idea of a joke). He is out of work and ekes by on petty theft.

Their relationship is a strange balance. There’s definitely a co-dependence; the unemployed Booth is letting his brother stay at his apartment during his separation and relies on Lincoln’s meagre salary to pay the rent.

There’s also very much a sibling rivalry. Booth is convinced he can best his brother at “throwing cards” (Three Card Monte), a street grift Lincoln has given up to live an honest life. Both brothers battle demons from their past, a result of the issues arising from having been abandoned by their parents.

Parks’ script is richly layered with metaphors and symbolism, her characters are complex, and their relationship is compelling. There’s just so much food for thought and so many angles to explore in her writing.

Unexpectedly, I also found the play very relatable. My only sibling is a younger brother and there’s definitely a universality in the sibling experience, as I watched the play I often found myself identifying with the characters in strange ways.

When you grow up with a sibling you form a unique relationship. Nobody knows my history as well as my brother and he also knows exactly how to get under my skin and push my buttons like no one else in my adult life. My brother is the last person I’ve had a screaming argument with, it’s amazing how tenuous our adult relationship is and how easily we can regress to child-like states with our siblings.

When you have a sibling of the same gender you also tend to be very competitive with each other. That competitive nature is a thread throughout Topdog/Underdog, Booth exhibits a cocky bravado and has a constant need to one-up his older brother.

I really enjoyed Nigel Shawn Williams’ performance, his Lincoln is a flawed yet sympathetic individual and he effectively conveys the character’s struggle to live legitimately after a life of crime and to pick up the pieces of his life after his separation. The level of pride he takes in his bizarre job is almost tragic, you can tell he’s really trying to live a life as honest as his namesake’s.

Kevin Hanchard’s Booth is oddly like-able despite the character’s many obvious flaws. He has an energy that’s really winsome, however, I found the character’s sudden shift late in the play to anger escalating to violence a little too abrupt, it almost seemed like it came completely out of nowhere.

Williams and Hanchard have a great rapport, after the run at Shaw they really have the rhythm and flow of the piece down pat. I found them completely believable as brothers and the scenes in the second act when their sibling rivalry erupts are intense.

Don’t miss your chance to see this superbly crafted production of a play that is bound to become a classic.


Photo Credit:
– Nigel Shawn Williams and Kevin Hanchard in Topdog/Underdog. Photo by Emily Cooper