On Sept. 21, the Albion College theatre department opened Topdog/Underdog, a production of brotherly love stitched together by scam and rivalry.
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, the play received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002. Directed by Savannah Manning, senior theater major from Muskegon, Michigan, Topdog/Underdog definitely deserves a Queen of Hearts review.
“Topdog/Underdog is the realest piece of drama I’ve ever read or had the pleasure to work on,” wrote Manning in the play program’s director’s note.
Her attachment to the piece came through in the performance, from the dynamic sibling love-to-hate relationship, all the way to the unique setting of the here and now. As a member of the audience on opening night, the reactions seen throughout the crowd showed how relatable the story of two struggling siblings was.
The play is set in the present, but the traditional tale of brother rivalry goes as far back as Cain and Abel, the first two sons of Adam and Eve. The only difference in this version is the presence of two playing cards and a “lady.”
The two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, were doomed from the beginning, named by a drunken father’s humor and left to survive with only each other. Their parents split, leaving each of them with a small inheritance and an unanswered question of self-identity.
A lifetime journey of looking up to one another comes with a cost. While the younger brother Booth provides the roof over their heads, Lincoln is sacrificing his identity to earn what little income he can.
While Booth is learning to shuffle cards, Lincoln is coming home in a long coat and top hat after a day of playing the role he was named for. The only difference is that this Lincoln is no honest Abe, and Booth has some darkness of his own. Jones and Bell each create a shattering performance full of unexpected turns, all with their own struggles and timely solutions.
With the odds stacked against them, accepting one another’s flaws and keeping each other afloat does not come easy. Bonding over a game of cards might be the only trick left for these con men.
Worn out and full of self-doubt, the brothers lift suited cards that are slicker than the con man personality they try to imitate in their struts. The life they crave is waiting for them out on the streets.
The streets, full of tourists and people thinking they can follow the cards, are what the three-card monte dealers thrive off of. Practicing between each other, Booth begs his older brother, Lincoln, for advice.
The softer the touch and the faster the hands, the smoother the scam will be.
Three-card Monte, also known as three-card trick or find the “lady,” is a game of confidence. Three cards are shuffled back and forth while the dealer tries to distract the betting person with slick words. Trying to make eye contact with the person is the dealer’s main objective. In order to throw the participant off keeping their eye on the card, the dealer speeds up the process.
During this play, the audience will be captivated by the cards throughout the scenes. The actors, Malik Jones and Chris Bell, may need more practice to successfully scam a real crowd through shuffling, their line delivery pulls the audience right in.
The dealer shows the cards and then shuffles. The bet is placed. The card flips. The audience wins. As I kept my eye on the lady, I was watching the cards just as closely as the brothers, and I knew before one card was picked if they had chosen right. Too bad I couldn’t have placed a bet.
The thrill of the game reaches more than the characters in this production because this game of cards is not just between the dealer and the better. It is not just money on the line, but the threads of a brotherly relationship. But between two brothers, the stakes could never get too high, or so the audience might think.
The gritty dialogue and the self-reflective monologues keep the audience alive; a laugh will escape with ease, and a nervous chuckle will be heard when the tension is uncomfortable.
With only two actors, Lincoln and Booth’s home was the only scene built for the stage. A theme of brown and blue along with old and new materials created a wary set design. The actors’ harsh words and energetic performance kept the crumbling wallpaper and chipping doorways held together, though.
The small comments from Booth, played by Bell, and the large actions from Lincoln, played by Jones, were well presented. While the tongue twisting card language seemed tough to master, Jones’ performance of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln made up for it.
“We internalize what people expect us to be as part of our identity, whether it’s by believing we can prove others wrong or trying to live up to it,” wrote Director Manning.
Two brothers, con men together and apart, start to tip toward the brink of destruction. Brothers, set against each other from birth, might let the scam of finding the lady pull them apart. As relatable as this sibling rivalry may be, I never thought that so much harm would come of it. We all are in search of our own identity, and siblings play a big role in that. This production is a first hand example of that key fact.
Will Lincoln and Booth find a bigger purpose then their opposing names, or will their greed get the best of them?
Topdog/Underdog turned out to be not at all what I expected. Coming in with the warning of loud noises and harsh languages was one thing, but due to Manning’s diligent directing and Jones’ and Bell’s colorful acting, the slamming doors of the set just added on to the knee-bouncing tension that made this production go off with a bang.
Make time to stop by Albion College Theatre for the production of Topdog/Underdog this coming weekend. The opening weekend was packed full, with no extra seat to spare. It’s production a that will keep the audience waiting for more and shocked with each slamming door.
Admission is free for students and faculty with Albion ID. All others, $5.
Albion College Black Box Theatre (Dow)
Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 8pm
Thursday, Sept. 27 at 8pm
Friday, Sept. 28 at 8pm
Saturday, Sept. 29 at 8pm