With a bone rattling clang, Soulpepper‘s staging of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s intensely compelling and fascinating play, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train stomps forward taking possession of the space with determination and confidence. “This is not the VIP room, but livestock storage“, we are told by the disturbingly sharp and brutal prison guard, Valdez, played menacingly by the excellent Tony Nappo (Tarragon’s The Golden Dragon) but the production shines as professional and bright as the hard metallic poles that make up the confined cells on the stage. The set, well designed by Ken MacKenzie (Soulpepper’s Spoon River), with pitch perfect lighting by Kevin Lamotte (Soulpepper’s Waiting for Godot) and solid costuming by Shannon Lea Doyle (Tarragon’s The Jungle), gives off the sense immediately upon entering that everyone in the well-crafted Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a caged creature one way or another. Separated from the outside world, the two cells that are planted like animal cages center stage sit strong and determined, while also being enclosed inside another confined space. The rest of world sits just out of reach, somewhere on the other side of that one side door, or unseen behind us, offering little to no access or escape. The sound design by John Gzowski (Soulpepper’s The Crucible) startles and encloses us from the first moment shocking us with its harshness and sharp emptiness. And then, we are given that first dynamic visual; a young man on his knees, desperately trying to find salvation in the spoken word, and being ridiculed for his clumsy failure. It’s an impressive combined slap that effectively entraps us tensely in captivity. It forces us to lean forward and peer down the dark tracks, tensely looking for the light that signals that the train we want is arriving fast and furiously.
It’s obvious from the get-go that no amount of praying by Angel Cruz, powerfully portrayed by Xavier Lopez (Blood Pact’s No Clowns Allowed), will ever release him from this or any kind of jail he finds himself trapped inside, even one of his own making. It’s clear that God and salvation/forgiveness will be playing a strong, but supportive role in this detailed exploration. The same could be said for the other inmate Lucius Jenkins, played wildly and strongly by Daren A. Herbert (Stratford’s The Music Man). His violent offense is much more grand in scale (X8) than the act done by the outspoken but scared Jesus, but Lucius speaks of God, and directly to God about salvation and forgiveness that teeters somewhere between profound and insane. His antics, when I first saw the play at the Signature Theatre in New York a few years back, wore me out, and I started to melt his words into a sound that could be ignored or discharged, but here, in Soulpepper’s Michael Young Theatre, each word and phrase strikes hard with the complicated intersections of belief, faith, denial, and dementia. The two fine actors spar defiantly and intimately while separated by bars, and in that fire, we find the fuel of this production, taking us to the edge of conflict and beyond.
Jesus has our compassion from the very beginning, even as he jabs and dodges with spitfire and pho-arrogance at the attorney assigned to his case. Played strongly by a confident Diana Donnelly (Shaw Festival’s Sex), Mary Jane Hanrahan withstands the onslaught with power and compassion, even as they rage against one another in their first meeting. Donnelly’s argument and defense is solid and detailed finding shades of another color not found elsewhere in her portrayal. She inhales the prison energy with passive intensity, shifting solidly in her shoes away from the high decibel interactions of this train ride to a structured solid place of complicit conflict. “Angel got to me” she says, as we acknowledge the same, even as we hear more about his crime (or maybe because of it). We join forces with her, for him, and when she acknowledges she made “two mistakes“, we know the road to Angel’s ruin has just been paved, but tense with an anticipatory edge.
The first guard we see interacting with Lucius is the kindly Charlie, played by a centered and warm Gregory Prest (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage), who treats his prisoner with respect as he works up on the rooftop of a special 24- hour lockdown wing on Rikers Island. His empathetic treatment of the prisoner fills us with empathetic care, and although he is punished for his kindness, he ultimately has an odd and profound twist, granting the guard a release from being the self-inflicted imprisonment inside those solid walls. His replacement, on the other hand is the brutal Valdez gladly taking over a jail cell of his own making. His has created walls made up of anger, hatred, and bitter antagonism. It surges out so distinctly that we become as bruised by his behavior as any of the prisoners inside.
His energy echoes the universal reaction of how many view these inmates, as if they are wild beasts that need to be caged, but it’s also a headspace that rattles the theatre’s senses, back and forth, accentuated by both Lucius’s desperate mania and Valdez’s fear-based aggressiveness.
It’s hard to pin down how we feel about Lucius and the system in general. The sympathy we feel for his predicament is as erratic as his behavior. The violence that has imprisoned him behind these very bars is disturbing and very deadly, but what about redemption? Who are we to take his life for the crimes he did on to others? Is crime and punishment balanced with empathy and understanding of mental illness and traumatic abuse? Do we ignore the childhood abuse done unto Lucius or do we seek to give him care and treatment for his trauma? More importantly, do we turn a blind eye to this violent offender, especially if he or she is of color, believing that we, as a community, might be a tad safer without him walking the streets? The answers are your own to make, but religion throws an additional layer on the social conundrum that makes it even more complicated for us to see the path clearly. And then there is Jesus, the inmate, not the Son of God. How will he be able to see his way clear to the end if we can’t come to any conclusions as we sit comfortably on the outside looking in?
It’s a testament to the strength of a play, as written, when it registers as strongly and complicatedly as it does here at Soulpepper. This express train ride of a play, directed with a quick sharp hand by Soulpepper’s Artistic Director Weyni Mengesha (Soulpepper’s Kim’s Convenience), has no delays on the tracks. It drives full speed to the end of its line filling us with a complicated engagement that is twisted by violence and personal choices. We know in the final moments, the cruelty of Lucius messing with the mind of the young Jesus, but we can’t completely deny the honesty with which it is being said. In both directions. The high-octane passion of the piece takes over, leaving us without a lot of space for complacency. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a powerful piece of writing about punishment, redemption, forgiveness, and prejudice wrapped up in God’s and societal judgement. But it’s in the variations of theme, speed, and color that keep us on the edge. Not a good place to be on our daily TCC or MTA train commute, but perfectly captivating for a night at the theatre.
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Totally “Appropriate” (for our time) and Phenomenally Brilliant, Housed and Unpacked by Coal Mine Theatre Toronto
Every season, to my amazement, there is always that one moment when you feel like you are witnessing something incredible. A theatrical alignment of the stars, when a great play reveals itself, coming to life and to your light before your very eyes. Even when, in this case, we are greeted with such dark vibrating intensity right from the beginning. And that moment is always courtesy of a mass of talented folks doing what they do best, creaking and screeching in an arena that just works. Just like the time I first saw The Lehman Trilogy, The Inheritance, or the epic Angels in America (all of which are going to grace a Toronto stage this coming season). They are moments to remember for a lifetime.
This season, Coal Mine Theatre just might be the one to take that highest of honors with the captivatingly revealing production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ brilliant play, Appropriate. A play that is both hilariously morbid and disturbing, while being gravely fascinating and meaningful. Using gothic horror as its framework, Appropriate delivers a spectacularly distinct unraveling; intense and threatening in the darkness that initially takes over the space, destined to ensnare anyone who enters, with or without a flashlight. The play feels like a ghost story wrapped in the haunted memories of its vast connection to enslavement, and it plays with that notion that soon gets lodged in our heads, forcing us to squirm in the overpowering static darkness, waiting for what feels like forever before we can start making out the bones of the beginning. In a way the play is actually about ghosts, but not one where the undead will rise up out of the floorboards or appear at the window looking in – even though it always feels like the haunted past is there, floating around or peering in, having its way with us by mystically keeping us perched on the edge of our seats.
But the haunting demons come from within, scattered about the space, seen and unseen, known and ignored, just waiting to be discovered. Not floating down the stairs or up from the basement, but they are as determined as ever to unsettle most, but not all, who open up that one particular chapter of Southern history, and really see what is there. It’s all right there in black and white; jarred and jarring, cataloged and presenting a disturbing time and formulation, even if we are determined to swim in the murky waters of denial. Appropriate is that moment. And what a moment it is, engaging every fiber of my being, and fueling an overwhelming excitement and interest to a higher degree in anticipation of seeing this spectacular play make its Broadway/Second Stage debut starring Sarah Paulson on December 18th at the Hayes Theater in New York City.
Written with direction and purpose, most intensely, by Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon; Everybody), Appropriate soars on that tiny theatrical stage at Coal Mine, designed with a tight purpose by Rebecca Morris (Lighthouse Festival’s Prairie Nurse) and Steve Lucas (CS’s Heisenberg), who also did the determined lighting design. The play overtakes the limitations with an expert eye for what is at the core of this compelling piece of theatre, shifting its brittle focus as easily as a wandering flashlight. The play won the 2014 Obie Award for Best New American Play, and as directed with clarity by Ted Dykstra (Coal Mine’s The Antipodes), the piece finds its delicious and angry dysfunction in the very bones and hidden remnants of this Lafayette family clan returning. They have all come together, much to the surprise and mistrust of most, to a decaying Arkansas plantation that is “more Gone With the Wind, and less hoarder” to deal with the familial history and their combustive alliances, but, on the more observerable surface, to untangle their recently deceased father’s complicated inheritance and somehow find closure.
That inheritance Is not all there in property and banknotes, laid out in their father’s will, but seared with more force in a bound relic that shines a sharp beam of light on their family’s possible problematic past. Casually found and revealed in distraction, it burns a bright hot light on their parental heritage, pushing to the surface decades of resentment and distrust, that has been ready and waiting for years to be unleashed on one another in a camera’s flash. Historical sin is what lies waiting on the shelf, biting in and drawing forth decades of unsaid venom into the family’s tight dysfunction. Bitterness and a punitive punishment have slowly burned itself steadfastly into their souls. Especially the oldest daughter, Toni, intensely and magnificently played by Raquel Duffy (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage). This desperate mother of one carries so much complicated embittered rage that one can’t help but lean in as you simultaneously want to back away out of fear and the instinctual need to protect. Duffy’s performance is a captivatingly stellar and tense unleashing, one that will register and be carried out of the theatre like a bruise on an arm, still stinging from all that hurt and pain that was thrown hard with such vengeance at almost every person in that room.
It’s a searingly difficult comedic drama, crawling in through the window from one of America’s most gifted young playwrights, to deliver the dynamic goods. The three adult children, rotting away from the insides, have come together, unwillingly and with a ton of baggage and resentment. They stand, un-unified, in a protective stance, wanting, in a way, to sort themselves out as they go through the hoarded mementos that their father had gathered around him before his death. But it’s more a collision course over debt and contention, with each carrying secrets from the other and themselves, ultimately determined to be the one who gets out less bruised than when they walked or climbed in. And if this non-typical haunted house has any say in the matter – and boy, does this house have a lot to say and unveil – this explosive reunion is a brawl just waiting to happen. Not the big familial hug that at least some of them are hoping for.
Beyond the recently divorced and rancorous Toni, and her troubled son, Rhys, assertively portrayed by Mackenzie Wojcik (RMTC’s A Christmas Story), her two younger brothers drag out more complications and skeletons than an old house could ever give, even one with both a familial graveyard and an unmarked slave graveyard out back. The older brother to Toni is Bo, the one who, at first, seems to have his business and life in some sort of order, even though he can’t seem to get off his cell phone and find a way to be present. But Toni doesn’t let that get in the way of flinging vile, foul-mouthed anger at Bo, played with detailed determination by Gray Powell (Crow’s Middletown), as his wife, the multi-layered Rachael, played strong by Amy Lee (RMTC’s Pride and Prejudice) orders and yells at their two children; the young fireball, Ainsley, played frantically by Ruari Hamman, and the older “almost an adult” daughter, Cassidy, sweetly and slyly portrayed by Hannah Levinson (TMSC’s Grey Gardens), in a frazzled frenzy of troubled form and function.
But it’s Toni’s younger brother, Franz, tightly portrayed by Andy Trithardt (Station Arts’ Prairie Nurse) whose unexplained arrival, with his newly formed flower-child fiancé, River, played to perfection by Alison Beckwith (Driftwood’s Trafalgar 24), that really brings the trauma and the history of this family, drenched in addiction and pedophilia to the surface. Unearthed and dirty, Toni’s unhinged anger rises up quickly, ready to be flung with such hate and fury that it takes work to stay in the room with them. No one trusts anyone in that room, as the secrets and the shame keep rising up from the floorboards ready to sharply splinter and spear the skin with a bloody vengeance. Apologies find no weight in the bitter waters of Toni’s existence as the jarred evidential mementos are ignored and secreted away, much like that flag that just leans in the backroom, begging to be noticed by anyone, but unseen by all, from start to almost finish.
Secrets are thrown about, quickly and with intention, mostly hitting the targets, even when the target is hiding in the darkness. But oddly the longing for love and care, and the undercurrent need for familial attachment sneaks in, even when misdirected. Somewhere, underneath all that anger, bitterness, jealousy, and betrayal, some form of needed connection hangs in the balance, finding relief in an absence or from asked-for hugs. They all just seem scared by all that history and the mistrust that comes with it; terrified and haunted by the idea that it will consume them all. Costumed with skill by Des’ree Gray (Buddies’ The First Stone), with a solid static-intense sound design by Deanna Choi (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time) and Michael Wanless (“The Rest is Electric“), Appropriate never lets up, haunting the walls and the rooms with hate and racial disturbances, gobbling up the lives of sweet girls and sugar, as we watch it all crumble to the ground.
Trapped in the intense disturbing sound of screaming cicadas and burned by all those shitty historic memories that have been buried deep for more than just seven years, these “misfit disaster people” swing hard, trying to bring as much damage to the other as they feel inside. Duffy’s Toni delivers the damaged goods with a rage that is wildly and magnificently mesmerizing. Her inner destructive power, unleashed from her pain and longing, is frighteningly clear, and never more apparent, and Appropriate, than inside that final disappearing act delivered on the stairs. It’s a performance that will live on inside me for a long long time, stinging and hurting like the wounds that were inflicted upon her so many years ago, from abandonment and love’s disappointment. Duffy is breathtakingly brilliant in the role, as powerful as the whole decrepit destruction that soon follows. Something I’m still thinking about to this very day.
There was an article in the New York Times this morning as I sat down to work on my review of Coal Mine Theatre‘s Appropriate. And it couldn’t have been more, well, Appropriate. It was entitled, “What Kind of Person Has a Closet Full of Nazi Memorabilia?” And at the edge of all these mismatched crazy memories, laced with blindness, anger, and denial, is the thing that makes Appropriate so fascinatingly magnificent. I’m still trying to unpack the chaotic, complex, and disturbing ending that destructively decays the formula before our very eyes, and the wordless wonder that fills those observing eyes as he takes in and sees what everyone else didn’t want to. Willful blindness is a crazy unhinged power, and also a defense, used to not see the ugly truth that is displayed before us. It’s not an Appropriate response, but in this play, it couldn’t be more Appropriate, especially for the times we live in.
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VideoCabaret in assoc. with Crow’s Theatre presents the World Premiere of “(EVERYONE I LOVE HAS) A TERRIBLE FATE (BEFALL THEM)”
VideoCabaret in association with Crow’s Theatre presents
(EVERYONE I LOVE HAS) A TERRIBLE FATE (BEFALL THEM)
Written & performed by Cliff Cardinal. Dramaturged & directed by Karin Randoja
Produced by Aaron Rothermund & Layne Coleman
VideoCabaret in association with Crow’s Theatre presents the World Premiere of (EVERYONE I LOVE HAS) A TERRIBLE FATE (BEFALL THEM) by Cliff Cardinal from October 10-29, 2023 at the Deanne Taylor Theatre (10 Busy Street, Toronto).
Deep in the bowels of a church basement, Robert and his support group must come to terms with their mortality before the impending apocalypse. If only they had just one more day…. Like an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, (EVERYONE I LOVE HAS) A TERRIBLE FATE (BEFALL THEM) is a haunting and humorous portrayal of humankind on the brink of extinction written and performed by Cliff Cardinal, dramaturged and directed by Karin Randoja.
Cliff Cardinal is a polarizing writer and performer known for black humour and compassionate poeticism. His solo theatre productions Stitch, Huff, and Cliff Cardinal’s CBC Special have toured extensively and won numerous awards. Cliff is an associate artist at VideoCabaret, where he premiered his multi-character play Too Good to Be True, “a captivating tale that solidifies Cardinal as one of the most talented and intriguing writers in the country” (NOW Magazine). He was named a “Canadian Cultural Icon ” in 2022 (The Globe and Mail) for William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, A Radical Retelling produced by Crow’s Theatre. The show has since toured across Canada, and was recently presented by Mirvish Productions in Toronto as The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It.
Tarragon Theatre’s “The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time” Stitches a Journey for the Ages
“It’s [all in] the stitchin’, not the patches, that completes your handiwork.” And that, in essence, is what The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time, Tarragon Theatre’s season opener, is all about… in a general sort of way. He’s “sick and tired of being sick and tired“, he will tell you that, but pay attention to the patches themselves is the framework we are being served up by the very game Walter Borden (Theatre Aquarius’ A Few Good Men). The playwright and performer of this epic quilt-unfurling has a lot to say about life as a gay black person as his voice resonates with deep personal tones of heartache and love; mischief and meandering attachment. Crouching to the unfolded quilt that is laid out before us, eventually, bit by bit over the 90min one-person show, the artist of a certain age majestically finds fervor in the fabric unfolded. He is a witness and a messenger; nature’s love child, using that incredibly seductive voice of his to wrap us up in his multi-faceted tale, trying his best to keep us in his memory-infused projected lane. And for the most part, he does. Even when we wander off here and there, taking in the view, feeling the rhythm, but getting sometimes lost in the rhyme.
“Speak your speak,” Borden, the Dora-nominated, Order of Canada-honoured legend of Canadian theatre, says, sauntering into the space as if arriving for a shift at a parking kiosk or maybe, and more likely, a toll booth. We pay our fare, “playing on frazzled wits” so we can drive alongside, following him on this ten-character highway that he so dutifully created, deep and heavy, out of an intense historical and cultural dreamscape. It’s a “circus of the damned” where we find ourselves, guided by an expert hand across decades of perspective and precise personalities. It transcends time and place with intersectional poetry and observations, and in the age-old tradition, like Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and even the latest one-person exploration by Daniel Jelani Ellis in Buddies’speaking of sneaking, Borden winds and drives his own vehicle, The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time, with the ease of an expert witness, showing us all he knows and has learned about himself and the world around him.
Aligned and derived from his famous, 1986 semi-autobiographical solo play, Tightrope Time Ain’t Nuthin’ More Than Some Itty Bitty Madness Between Your Twilight & Your Dawn, this newly engaged manifest is etched and merged together from his past. The characters flip forth, merging into newly paved lanes with a clarity of thought and form. At first, it is hard to see the oncoming traffic, those dredged-up iconic memories from a time both past and present. But those images and ideas consistently surprise us when they race into our rearview mirror with urgency, sometimes confusingly, and sometimes enlightening the air around us. A voice, dripping and projecting mystical light, thanks to set, costume, lighting, and projection design by Andy Moro (Citadel/Tarragon’s The Herd), speaks of a destiny and a purpose that is carved in simple grounded poetry and grand beautiful lyricisms, and we gladly join in for the journey. I can’t say I stayed totally tuned in to all the layers and dream-like landscapes we passed during our ride through, but the humor and the humanity always pulled me back in from the haziness I might have slipped into.
“Your life is like this patchwork quilt where them pieces don’t mean nuthin’ when they scattered all about, but if you take the time to lay them side by side, they got a tale to tell.”
The voice, courtesy of the fine work done by sound designer and composer Adrienne Danrich O’Neill (LCT’s Intimate Apparel), speaks of a destination that many might not comprehend or even want to, but as directed with clarity and a forward motion by Peter Hinton-Davis (Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged to the Deer), Borden drives on from one complexity to another, nudging us to look deeper within ourself, and the other. The view out the window isn’t always exacting, nor is it always easy to understand coherently, but the landscape that he wants to show us, intentionally incomplete and complex, gives way to a greater connection and understanding of humanity and beyond. Memories and vantage points are presented, bumping and grinding up against one another, delivering the contours of content with an easy wave of an arm.
To the “children of the diaspora, that is–the family,” this play carries four nations on his back, bringing forth memories that live on in his well-formed Last Epistle that unearths this landmark piece of Canadian theatre. It was created and embodied with a sharp determination to not only explore male homosexuality from a Black perspective but simultaneously and fearlessly unpack a life lived in poverty. And in love. Esoteric and enlightening, The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time has grown through time and years into something profound. Blessed and blurry with age, it will live on in abundance, opening our eyes and hearts to a world that continues to be seen and heard most wantedly, so we may understand and embrace.
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Topdog/Underdog Fires Up the Ring Magnificently for Canadian Stage Toronto
Round one begins with a ringing that transcends the boxing ring apartment over in the corner of Canadian Stage‘s spirited and raw revival of Topdog/Underdog now playing at their Berkeley Street Complex. “Follow the card,” we are told, numerous times (maybe a few too many, to be honest), yet whether it’s the red or the black card that is the winner, this play is most definitively the medicine we all need that doesn’t come in a bottle. Written most dynamically by the legendary Suzan-Lori Parks (Public’s Plays for the Plague Year; White Noise); the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama unsurprisingly for this 2001 play, this vibrant exploration of sibling rivalry and resentment feels as powerful, tense, and engaging as ever. Even after seeing it brought to life most dynamically in the celebrated Broadway production last year. It’s still timely and explosive, particularly as we watch the world we inhabit uncomfortably gripped inside an increasingly violent war of hate and fear layered within the political landscape. Even here in Canada.
The play feels as ripe and raw with meaning as it must have felt some twenty years ago when it first hit the stage at the Public Theater in New York City. Maybe even more. Filled with energy and insight, the Canadian Stage production, directed with a serious intent for unpacking by Tawiah M’Carthy (Obsidian/Canadian Stage’s Fairview), unleashes numerous rounds of difficult troubling interactions between two brothers, fascinatingly (and cruelly) named Lincoln, solidly and magnetically portrayed by an upright Sébastien Heins (Outside the March’s No Save Points), and Booth, captivating and angrily embodied by Mazin Elsadig (Soulpepper’s Pipeline). Their given names send forth a profound message of conflict, both captivating and telling, that plays out a complicated and combative history before our very eyes. It’s a violent conflict in the making, unraveling a replay for us all to see, in close quarters, roped in without any support from the outside world. Especially their abandoning parents, long gone, yet painted with folklore and fantasy.
Heins’ Lincoln, the older of the two, sits straight, framed in a hat befitting his name, finding himself colliding with and crashing into and on his younger brother’s recliner, in need but without a lot of faith in the future. He is newly discarded; tense and separated from the wife we only hear about in a sideways kind of way. He goes to work daily and unapologetically, to a sit-down job with benefits that fits on his impressively tight frame as uncomfortably as that outfit he is made to wear for it. His brother, Booth; handsome, strong, and virile, steals his way through an existence that keeps him combustible, trapped in this rundown room with no running water and a single bed propped up with old porn magazines. Aching for something more grand, he exists, wanting more, even if it is through a con and a lie. And that’s only how the first card is played.
Designed with clarity by Rachel Forbes (Canadian Stage’s Choir Boy), the whole small roomed scenario seems lopsided and uncomfortable; delirious but without hope, shoved a little too claustrophobically in the far corner, when maybe a thrusting forward on an angle would have suited the intimacy more. Yet, Topdog/Underdog still radiates with a tense, angry energy that refuses to go down without a count of ten. With perfectly formulated costuming by Joyce Padua (Factory’s Vierge), detailed lighting by Jareth Li (Factory’s Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus), and a strong bell-ringing sound design by Stephen Surlin (Outside the March’s No Save Points), the room speaks volumes quietly as is unpacks itself before us. Determined and cluttered, it looks like a boxing-ring firetrap just waiting to be knocked out, and it is, in a way. The energy within this production is of a fight brewing, waiting and wanting, tightened by hardship and ignited jealous rage, and as written by Parks, sparks fly quickly as the two engage in a battle for who will sit on top at the end of the day. And who will be knocked out. Throwing cards in hopes of something more fulfilling, or more exciting, we are riveted and hypnotized by their historic reimagining, even as the play continues to repeat itself again and again. But we are never given an easy out, never quite sure where and when the sparks will land. And who will be counted out by an always-watching, invisible referee.
“We’d clean up bro,” Booth says to the other, hoping Link will return to the cards and they will team up, “ranking in the money” but if history, their joke-namesake set-up, and Lincoln’s white-faced day job are any indication at all, the elder’s days are numbered, at the boardwalk arcade and beyond. Every day he sits down at his job, dressed up like Abraham Lincoln so tourists can walk in and shoot him in the back with toy cap guns. And we can’t help but feel the discomfort and the internalized shame that Link must feel with every trigger pulled. The idea, although historically accurate, feels just so messed up and complicated to comprehend. So it’s no surprise that the future looks dark and bleak to this man. Layoffs or not. And we can most definitely feel it in Heins’ very textured, magnificently tense, tight performance and frame.
Parks is a known admirer of Abraham Lincoln and writes about the legacy of the man and the meaning to those who descend from slaves. Topdog/Underdog, through the unpacking of complicated brotherly love and family identity, tries to explain that legacy inside the complicated textured story of two African-American brothers struggling to stay above water. Heins’ Lincoln lives with eyes stone cold, still but filled with unspoken discomfort, taking a job that is as disturbing as life must be for this man in that single room with no running water, reclining and waiting for something to save him from his situation. It’s clear he got the job because he accepted less than what the white man before him would take. And all one can say, watching the weight of that legacy on his frame is: “This shit is hard” to swallow, like the Chinese food he unpacks on a makeshift table for his angry brother and him to ingest. But Parks does not judge the legacy of Lincoln in this epic play but rather believes the man and his death have somehow “created an opening with that hole in his head.” She enjoys, through her poetic pulsating rhythm, pushing forth the discomfort into her rapt audience through her own Booth and Lincoln, challenging us to see what lies ahead and take note (and maybe some action).
In a way, we all have to pass through that historic hole in Lincoln’s head to understand the quest that lies ahead for us all as we watch world politics, particularly America’s, do collective damage to our psyche. Living large in their small slowly tightening story, the play drives forward, sometimes intensely, while other times, in between rounds, the energy gets stalled. I kept wanting the gathering tension to move forward more succinctly and tightly, like Tom Stoppard’s magnificent Leopoldstadt, gathering tension with each moment and each scene. Like a boxing match, never giving in to the need for too much rest for the boxers in between bells. Topdog/Underdog keeps giving us a bit too much space to fill in, losing its momentum here and there, allowing us the space to disconnect, during intermission and during those intuitive moments inside many of the scenes. But when it does aim its gun sharply, inward, upward, and with continued energy, the bullet, and the internal fire, find their form, sometimes in the beauty of music and guitar, scorching the ropes that surround this decrepit room with a heat that can’t be denied.
The two actors dominate the ring, taking full control of the scripted energy and tensions that enslave them, even if the play sometimes de-evolves into repetitive reenactments a bit too often. The actors play with the cards dealt, and pour out the medicine and morality that lives and breaths inside them with a level of uncomfortable anger that lingers. The messiness and jealousy carry the play forward, born out of their upbringing and family history with magnetic resonance. It’s a sharply constructed interaction, that stuffs dreams and love underneath the bed with such determination. It collides strongly with all that violence and unfairness that lives outside the door, including the Three-Card love and desire that will destroy them all. Reenacting that emotionally charged moment in history at Ford’s Theatre, Topdog/Underdog teases the dream of some sort of better connection for these brothers, but also gives rise to other darker conflicts that were born when a mother shoved her life into plastic bags and left. Inheritance or not, Topdog/Underdog illuminates a shift in position, resurrecting a larger sad family history that is forever steeped in abandonment and pain, that will never release them from its heavy burden. No matter how hard he tries to strut with confidence.
Haunted by a past that refuses to let go, the playing card poetry of the play lives and ignites a flame inside Lincoln’s legacy and his country’s enduring struggle with racism that hangs on the side curtains with a dangerous weight. Topdog/Underdog, brought to life by Parks twenty years ago and finds new life inside Canadian Stage’s Marilyn & Charles Baillie Theatre, raises all of those complex ideas that hang in the background waiting to engulf our world. Take notice of this production and this play, and find your way in so that it may live on inside you as intensely as it was intended. That flame burns strong in American politics and in our collective hearts these days, filling us with dread and fear of a possible chaotic future in the world at large. This play’s presence is needed here, and its legacy, with all the cards played, should not be forgotten or ignored.
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Entertainment3 days ago
Events For October
Off Broadway4 days ago
Let’s Talk to Lindsay Heather Pearce and Jordan Donica Guest Stars of The New Rock Musical, Exorcistic
Out of Town4 days ago
Topdog/Underdog Fires Up the Ring Magnificently for Canadian Stage Toronto
Events2 days ago
‘Poor Things’ Thrills at New York Film Festival
Broadway1 day ago
Theatre News: Wicked, Kimberly Akimbo, Alice in Neverland and Ballad of Dreams, The Night of the Iguana and Ode To The Wasp Woman
Out of Town1 day ago
Totally “Appropriate” (for our time) and Phenomenally Brilliant, Housed and Unpacked by Coal Mine Theatre Toronto