Topdog/Underdog -- Theater Review

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For more than two and a half hours in a one-room, hellish flat, a brutal battle rages between two brothers (M.D. Walton and A.K. Murtadha) betrayed by their own and their country's history. As it turns out, writer Suzan-Lori Parks has something more elusive in mind.

It is the Lillian Theatre's new production of "Topdog/Underdog," Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning play which struggles to make articulate and perhaps universal a kind of terrifying self-hatred and anger that ultimately remains uniquely personal and tragically devoid of resolution.

The Abraham Lincoln part of the conceit is by far the more complex and powerful. Each time Murtadha puts on his Lincoln costume for his job in an arcade act in which customers pay to reenact the assassination, or when he reflects on the irony and the pain of the absurd situation (as further irony, he must wear white-face on the job), he ignites the possibility of mortal.

In an intimate space re-creating the size of the original off Broadway production, Martin Papazian's direction doesn't allow for a moment's respite in the escalating chaos of jealousy and confusion. The ritualized partitioning of the room and the relationship between the two figures -- one a former card shark haunted by death, the other a wannabe hustler consumed by a need for love and a corresponding lack of self-esteem -- haunts the action as their struggle descends into night. The production team has put together a set and costumes that reek with the two brothers' lives.

The two performances, which pay homage to George and Lennie in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," feed off each other in overlapping spirals of despair. Whenever Walton, physically big and powerful, lurches and careens, he takes over the audience with his energy. His characterization is enriched by the way he finally becomes aware of his murderous intent.

With an enormous range of charm and beauty which served him well in his character's former life, the shorter, lithe Murtadha identifies with the inner emotional life of his brutish brother.

Whether dressed to the nines or in an outlandishly humiliating presidential monkey suit, he gives a portrayal of quiet, deadly grace, light-heartedly and attractively aware of his fate.

Like Dael Orlandersmith's "Bones," which ran for just a week at the Kirk Douglas Theatre earlier this month, and with which this play shares a common historical lineage and predicament, "Topdog/Underdog" finds little hope of redemption even with death. In an even larger sense, both plays are about moments frozen in time, at which early childhood skills were brutally forced to cope with being on their own.

Venue: Lillian Theatre, Hollywood (Through Sept. 12)
Cast: M.D. Walton, A.K. Murtadha
Writer: Suzan-Lori Parks
Director: Martin Papazian
Producer: M.D. Walton
Executive producer: Robert Papazian
Scenic designer: Peter Wooley
Lighting designer: Heather & Rich Designs
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
Costume designer: Dianne Graebner
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