In the midst of a dead heat in the presidential race, the Dramatic Repertory Company is staging an altogether different spin on politics with the Maine premiere of “Topdog/Underdog.”
The play, written by Suzan-Lori Parks, is a two-man production about Lincoln and Booth. Audiences can expect to see Lincoln’s trademark top hat and beard, and he does get assassinated (repeatedly, in fact). There’s also plenty of oppression, but don’t expect the abolition of slavery in the two-hour-plus play.
The twist? These aren’t the Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth from the history books. Instead, they’re two black brothers, whose names were their father’s idea of a joke.
“Topdog/Underdog” provides an intimate glimpse into the down-and-out lives of the brothers. They were only ages 11 and 16 when their father left, never to return. Their mother had already gone. The two had to fend for themselves, with the older brother, Lincoln, supporting them by hustling cards on the street.
Now, years later, Lincoln is trying to walk the straight and narrow, working as an Abe Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, where tourists pay to “assassinate” the historical figure, over and over again. His wife kicked him out, and he’s living in a one-room apartment (without running water) with his brother, Booth. Booth dreams of being a three-card hustler like his brother once was.
The Dramatic Repertory Company delivers a passionate rendition that stars Bari Robinson as Lincoln and J.H. Smith III as Booth. It’s hard-hitting drama that, as with real life, works in a touch of humor. As the old saying goes, it’s better to laugh than to cry. And Robinson and Smith’s characters have more than their share of things to cry about.
The adult-themed play is entirely set in the brothers’ cramped, no-frills apartment. There is little to distract the audience’s attention from the actors. The production relies on them to captivate the audience. They succeed.
Robinson delivers a performance that is unnerving, yet enthralling. He takes the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride as his character sinks into a drunken depression, then cockily swings back on top of his game.
Smith solidifies the family dynamic as the younger brother, who hides his pain and disappointment behind jive-talking bravado.
Their interaction as brothers is believable and tragic.
“Topdog/Underdog” is an innovative production that explores life and family. Parks cleverly conjures up historical references to slavery and oppression by naming the brothers Lincoln and Booth. All the while, the seemingly ironic names shape and foreshadow their fates.
Adding to the running subtext of the production is Lincoln’s use of white face paint to transform himself into the Honest Abe of history. Like a mime, he suffers in silence, trapped in his own imagination, failing to fully communicate with those around him. His mask is literal, while Booth’s is verbal.
The play contains explicit language and adult situations not intended for younger audiences. Those seeking a meaningful production, with engrossing performances, will appreciate the artfulness of “Topdog/Underdog.”
It’s a multi-layered, astute production that provides plenty of food for thought.
April Boyle is a free-lance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at: