Ac­tors bring pain to life in two top-flight plays THEATRE

My DNA.” Booth and Lin­coln share all of that, and they share it with us in this mod­ern Greek tragedy.

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

TOP­DOG/UN­DER­DOG

By Suzan-lori Parks. Di­rected by Dean Paul Gib­son. An Arts Club Theatre Com­pany pro­duc­tion. On the Gold­corp Stage at the BMO Theatre Cen­tre on Fri­day, Jan­uary 26. Con­tin­ues un­til Fe­bru­ary 11

Lin­coln and Booth are Africanamer­i­can 2 brothers, named by a fa­ther with a pe­cu­liar sense of hu­mour. He made a joke out of nam­ing the el­der for a pres­i­dent and the younger af­ter Lin­coln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth.

Their par­ents left them when Lin­coln (Michael Blake) was 16 years old and Booth was just 11. We find them to­gether again roughly two decades later in Top­dog/un­der­dog, try­ing to scrape by in a grotty one-room apart­ment.

Re­cently di­vorced, Lin­coln has landed an un­usual job at an amuse­ment ar­cade. He dresses up as his name­sake, com­plete with white face paint, and tourists re-cre­ate the pres­i­dent’s as­sas­si­na­tion with a cap gun. Booth (Luc Roderique) is un­em­ployed and at loose ends. He as­pires to the crim­i­nal life his brother left be­hind, con­ning tourists with three-card monte.

It’s against this back­drop of poverty and un­ful­filled dreams that Top­dog/ Un­der­dog plays out. In this twohan­der, the per­form­ers al­most never leave the stage. Though it’s a very in­ti­mate play, there’s the sense of some­thing epic and time­less in this bat­tle be­tween brothers. The power shifts back and forth as they poke and prod at each other’s soft spots—lin­coln’s failed mar­riage, Booth’s in­ac­tion.

The play’s cre­ator, Suzan-lori Parks, won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002 for this script, mak­ing her the first African-amer­i­can woman to do so. It’s a work that’s dense with lay­ers of mean­ing, where mo­ments cir­cle back on each other—for ex­am­ple, Lin­coln per­form­ing a death over and over again for white em­ploy­ers who pay him less than his white pre­de­ces­sor. In an­other ex­change, Lin­coln prom­ises his brother that “your luck will change” when, in the con game of three-card monte, luck is not in­volved.

Shizuka Kai’s set is a gi­ant shoe­box gnawed open by a dog. We look in through torn-open walls and split win­dow frames. A lamp hangs from a ragged chunk of ceil­ing, im­prob­a­bly float­ing above the room. In most the­atri­cal de­signs, the fourth wall is en­tirely re­moved. Here, a lip of that wall re­mains, in­creas­ing the show’s sense of im­pris­on­ment.

Light­ing de­signer Itai Erdal em­ploys some sub­tle tricks to re­in­force this feel­ing. A knife-sharp blade of light crosses the floor be­tween scenes to clev­erly con­vey the pas­sage of time.

It’s a script that’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously lyri­cal and very chal­leng­ing. Both Blake and Roderique deftly man­age the sheer vol­ume of words. In Lin­coln, Blake finds a kind of louche lethargy that makes his dex­ter­ous handling of the cards all the more con­vinc­ing. Roderique, on the other hand, is all pent up, an ig­nited rocket that re­fuses to lift off.

As the house­lights dim at the start of the show, Ken­drick La­mar’s “DNA” is played. La­mar raps “I got power, poi­son, pain, and joy inside my DNA/I got hus­tle though, am­bi­tion flow inside

> DAR­REN BARE­FOOT THE ALIENS

By An­nie Baker. Di­rected by Kevin Bennett. A Sticks and Stones Theatre pro­duc­tion. At Ha­vana Theatre on Satur­day, Jan­uary 27. Con­tin­ues un­til Fe­bru­ary 4

What a story si­lence can tell if 2

you tune in to it. This pro­duc­tion of The Aliens is exquisitely tuned.

Amer­i­can play­wright An­nie Baker’s script of­fers an ex­treme form of nat­u­ral­ism: her char­ac­ters are far from heroic; they’re of­ten barely ar­tic­u­late. More than a third of the play­ing time con­sists of silent pauses in the dia­logue, and if you think that sounds te­dious, think again: the quiet con­tains enor­mous emo­tional riches.

The Aliens is set in an al­ley be­hind a restau­rant, where Jasper and KJ, a pair of friends in their 30s, like to hang out. When Evan, a new em­ployee, tells them they’re not al­lowed to be there, the trio strike up an odd sort of friend­ship.

Evan’s in­no­cence is coun­ter­pointed by the un­der­tow of dis­ap­point­ment in the older men. Jasper’s an aspir­ing nov­el­ist griev­ing the end of a re­la­tion­ship; KJ is a col­lege dropout whose ap­par­ent bril­liance hasn’t found a con­ven­tional out­let—he still lives at home with his mom.

The play’s ti­tle is one of the names of their erst­while band; it ex­plic­itly al­ludes to a Charles Bukowski poem about the un­fath­omable fact of “peo­ple who go through life with very lit­tle fric­tion or dis­tress”. These char­ac­ters are not those peo­ple; their si­lences give them space to be bro­ken and make us re­late to and care deeply for them. There’s very lit­tle ac­tion in the play; the first act cul­mi­nates in a shared Fourth of July cel­e­bra­tion be­hind the restau­rant, com­plete with pep­per­mint schnapps and fire­works.

But the real py­rotech­nics are in Baker’s mas­ter­fully mun­dane dia­logue—and its abun­dant pauses— which di­rec­tor Kevin Bennett and his cast de­liver with grace and hu­mour. Jasper is of­ten in de­nial, about his breakup (“I don’t need to talk about it,” is how he caps a minilec­ture on the sub­ject) or a sud­den crip­pling chest pain that dou­bles him over (“I feel fan­tas­tic, though,” he says with­out irony), and Tim Howe makes his every word and every pause ring true. It would be easy to make the ec­cen­tric KJ a car­i­ca­ture, but Zac Scott’s per­for­mance is grounded and au­then­tic. As Evan, Teo Sae­fkow is ea­ger to please, hes­i­tant, self-ef­fac­ing—a thor­oughly con­vinc­ing in­no­cent. The ac­tors are all fully com­mit­ted to their char­ac­ters’ vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

The play’s in­ti­macy is sup­ported by the Ha­vana’s cozy con­fines, and Stephanie Wong’s pro­duc­tion de­sign gets every de­tail right, from the pa­per lanterns hang­ing above the al­ley’s pic­nic ta­ble and its bleached-out day­time light­ing, to the hole in the chain­link fence along the side.

The run is short and the venue is small, but The Aliens is the real thing: theatre that opens your heart and ex­pands your soul. Make sure you don’t miss it.

> KATH­LEEN OLIVER

Top­dog/un­der­dog,

In the racially charged two brothers (Michael Blake and Luc Roderique) scrape by in a grotty one-bed­room apart­ment. David Cooper photo.

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