Wednesday, September 28, 2011
At the Shaw: Topdog/Underdog
by Kelly Bedard
I was dreading Topdog/Underdog. I had to read Suzan-Lori Parks’ Fucking A in school and could not have despised it more. I was anticipating an angry, expletive-ridden, crass 2 hours designed to provoke response through discomfort. It’s possible that the script could read that way, but Philip Akin’s production in the Shaw Festival Studio Theatre is so much more than that.
I think what a Parks script needs is to not be just a script anymore. It needs warm bodies and beating hearts, someone to put a face on the rough characters. In short, what Topdog/Underdog needed was Nigel Shaw Williams, Kevin Henchard and director Philip Akin. In their hands, Parks’ characters (the fantastically named Lincoln and Booth) shone through for all their conflicted complexity and subtle humanity, Parks’ pulsating rhythms taking centre stage over the alienating intensity of the dialogue on paper. The beatnik mantra of the card game motif is particularly cool- recurring over and over with slight and beautifully revealing variants. With the help of relatable and engaging actors, Parks’ work goes from hard to read to fascinating to watch.
Camellia Koo’s thoughtful set design added to the production’s overriding sense of cool with small elements of great metaphorical value. My favourite was the scattered jenga-like pieces that had the effect of the floorboards (the very ground the characters stand on) crumbling beneath them, falling apart. The metaphor was great but it also gave a visceral sense of the poverty Lincoln and Booth were living in.
Against all my expectations, Topdog/Underdog proved to be one of my favourite productions of the season. Of all 11 plays at The Shaw Festival, Topdog/Underdog is the one that really stayed with me and prompted the most visceral and empathetic reaction. It’s a production that makes you think, makes you feel and made me change my mind about Suzan-Lori Parks.