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.
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