Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 27, 2019

REVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, “Topdog/Underdog”

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 8, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Photo courtesy of Shakespeare & Co.
Two black brothers: as close as they can be and as far as they can ever be. One “the winner” (Topdog), one “the loser” (Underdog). Then circumstances switch and switch again as soulmates quickly become Cane and Abel. At one point, the younger of the two asks, “Do you think we’re really brothers?” The older man says that they are. But what is kinship? If people just happen to live in the same house, does that make them even remotely the same?

“Topdog/Underdog” poses these questions between the brothers and for the audience. All the while, Booth (performed by Deacon Griffin-Pressley) acts like a puppy dog jumping around, literally and figuratively, trying to be noticed by Lincoln (Bryce Michael Wood), the more mature and steadfast of the two, yet very much a man with his own problems. Packed with symbolism, the play’s text takes every opportunity to blatantly pose difficulties that seem unsolvable. From the very start, the characters’ name, Booth and Lincoln, set up the action, which the audience will immediately realize, will not end pleasantly.

Director Regge Life has staged this two-plus hour play, equally balancing the good and bad, pros and cons, hits and misses that can possibly make each or both brothers succeed. The director throws out tiny bits of hope that maybe, if these brothers united it could be them against the world. Yet, the audience knows that this is a long shot.

Griffin-Pressley portrays immaturity and bravado with a child-like attitude. His career is that of a petty thief. He probably doesn’t love his brother, but more importantly, he respects his skills. Wood’s character has been there/done that and learned the hard way. While far from perfect, he gives the straight life a try, at the same time humiliated by his efforts.

“Topdog/Underdog” is a very good, well-written play that sets the issues, the place, and the characters connected seamlessly to each other. Yet, this is a play where the two actors’ talents are superior to the script. The audience is often left questions; i.e. is Booth feigning his involvement with Grace (an unseen character), conniving his next moves, or just so crazed by his own impossible life that he barely exists as a real person?

Some thoughts about the set: the NYC co-op is much too large with decent furniture; the elegant chandelier in a rundown building makes little sense.

Note: Looking around the theatre, it was obvious that there were few or no people of color in the audience. That is a missed opportunity; theatre is for everyone.