Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Director's Notes

Top Dog/Underdog
            It’s been twenty years since I’ve had anything to do with the management of a theater, and I haven’t missed it. But there’s a very cool place in Norfolk called The Venue on 35th. That’s West 35th Street, which divides the less prosperous Park Place neighborhood from the more prosperous Colonial Place section, where our mayor grew up.
            The Venue on 35th hosts a variety of acts on its small stage as it continues to explore its own potential after seven years on the block. Many local artists have passed through on their way to wider fame. Many others—like me—keep going back because it’s an open stage available to us for our performance projects, especially every Monday night at Open Mic where poets and players can practice what they’re working on before an audience that is always friendly.
            In fact, for The Venue’s founders—Norfolk native Patti Wray and her partner Lucy White—Open Mic is the pure embodiment of their intention—to provide a stage and assemble an audience for local writers and performers to showcase their art.
            So when I realized that Lucy had become ill and Patti was doing most of the work to keep the place running, I said I could be available to help take up the slack. They took me up on it and offered me a position as production manager.

            There’s been no time yet for figuring out exactly what that title means because a scheduled production of a difficult play, Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, was floundering after the unexpected loss of its director. Thus the finger of fate pointed to me. I waded into the murky depths of the script to join the two actors who had begun rehearsing but were not nearly off-book. That was three weeks out from opening night. The play is long, emotionally complex, and prop-heavy with several costume changes. Could we make it or should we cancel?
            My co-director, Marlon Hargrave, is one of the actors. He had a passion to do this play. His co-star is Beatty Barnes, who had done his role before in a Norfolk production seven or eight years ago. Each of them has an unusually strong, though contrasting, stage presence, which happens also to perfectly suit the character each plays.
            Damn! I thought. This is too good to pass up! Not that Top Dog/Underdog is a play I’ve been burning to do. I saw the production Beatty was in, and I remember not liking where it took me by the end. But this was an emergency. It was happening, just as I came officially on board at The Venue. I could hardly back away from it.
            So I decided that if these guys were willing to commit to doing the work it would take to put up this play nearly from scratch in just three weeks, I’d do the same.
            We successfully opened the show on Feb. 1. Now, after a concentrated rehearsal period and a weekend of performances behind us, I don’t know if I like where the play ends or not. It’s no longer about that for me. It’s about watching these two actors play their roles. For me, they save the play. I haven’t gotten tired of watching them yet.
            Top Dog/Underdog defies labeling, but I’d call it a tragi-comic drama. At the opening it seems absurdist, even a touch surreal, with many chuckles at the characters’ expense. But by the end it’s an all-too-human tragedy. Marlon and Beatty make that stretch work. Even though the script is over-written, sprinkled with ambiguous symbols, and calls for minor miracles of staging, they make it work—with considerable support from the costumes and props collected or hand-created by Missy ShuggaHayes Mohr.
            Marlon is Booth, a black man in his 30s, as the stage directions have it. Beatty is Lincoln, his older brother. They live together in a cramped boarding house room—bathroom down the hall—and share a raw, love-hate relationship full of lies and deceit.
            Lincoln provides their cash flow with his full-time job. Each day he puts on white-face and plays Abraham Lincoln in an amusement arcade. His role is to slump over when customers creep up behind him and fire a cap gun at his head.
            Booth, who, as original tenant, claims ownership of their shared room, is a flagrant shop-lifter trying to rekindle his romance with a woman who dumped him because of his “economic difficulties.” He wants Lincoln to partner with him in the profitable three-card monté street hustle his brother was once so good at. But Lincoln swore off the cards after one of his former accomplices was shot to death, probably by a cheated customer. He clings to his present employment because at least it’s “honest work.”
            With the play shifting thus between the absurd and the all-too-real, it’s hard to imagine how anything redeeming can emerge from this broken situation. And nothing really does. Yet for me the play is redeemed by these actors because they are just so damned good. We might have no pity for Lincoln or Booth if not for the common humanity Beatty and Marlon capture and portray at nearly every turn.
            Some critics have made parallels between Lincoln and Booth and pairs of Biblical brothers—Cain and Abel for fratricide, Jacob and Esau for cheating a brother of his inheritance. I’m sure the allusions are no accident. The author is surely well aware of what pleases the literary elite.
            But somehow the actors transcend symbolic comparisons or cultural stereotypes. They so humanize their characters that they forge a bond between the play, which is long and disturbing, and the audience, which yearns to find humanity in an otherwise treacherous situation. People leave the theater, I suspect, mesmerized more by the performances than by the matter of the play.
            If you like good theater, you really shouldn’t miss this. Top Dog/Underdog won its Pulitzer back in 2002, but—perhaps unfortunately—is not outdated yet and plays at The Venue for one more weekend, Feb. 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 10 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15, reservations may be made at 469-0337.


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