Theatre Review: ‘Topdog/Underdog’ at Round House Theatre

Posted By: Katie Barnetton: June 06, 2024 for MD Theatre Guide

Yao Dogbe (Booth) and Ro Boddie (Lincoln) in “Topdog_Underdog” at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

Are you watching closely? Go see “Topdog/Underdog” at Round House Theatre, and you better. From Chekhov’s gun to sleight of hand, the fates and actions of the characters turn on a dime—make that a card. Written by award-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Jamil Jude, “Topdog/Underdog” (2002 Pulitzer Prize Winner and 2023 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play) lives on the edge of a knife while questioning every aspect of society, history, and the individual.

I would see this play again just for the synergy of these actors…perfect pacing, lyrical delivery, and impressive emotional range.

The work is a two-man show about the lives of brothers Lincoln (Ro Boddie) and Booth (Yao Dogbe). I won’t reveal how the brother’s got their names, but they (and you) are certainly left to make sense of the joke. From the outset, Parks leaves audiences wondering which brother is on top. Booth opens the show practicing street hustling moves in his flat. While his skills are electric, his bookshelf is made from milk cartons. Lincoln enters and collapses into a recliner, still dressed in top hat and tails from his sit-down job. What seems like a classic responsible older brother/struggling younger brother scenario quickly flips when Booth reveals that Lincoln is the one couch surfing. Yet, even as Lincoln tries to forget his ex-wife Cookie, Booth can’t quite get a ring on his elusive love, Grace.

The rest of the show doesn’t get clearer, and ambiguity is where Park’s genius resides. Just like Three-Card Monte (Booth’s chosen hustle), it seems impossible to track exactly what game hand the brothers are playing. David and Jonathan? Jacob and Esau? Are the shared stories, secret handshakes, and condom recommendations just that, or is there something more sinister going on? What is clear is each brother’s struggle to understand himself, what went wrong, and how to reclaim space in the world.

The backdrop for this were the play’s many costume changes. In Act 1, pilfered suits, street clothes, jackets, hats, and shoes came on and off as frequently as the characters questioned themselves. Act 2 formed a direct contrast as each brother settled into an outfit and attempted to live out his answers. The importance of names/name changes was referenced throughout. Booth considered changing his name to “Three Card” and Lincoln/Linc often pulled at the irony of his job position as “Honest Abe.” Careers and career changes were also major topics of discussion. Booth repeatedly tried to convince Lincoln to join him as hustle partner, while Lincoln gritted his teeth over the injustices he endures to keep his job with benefits. While these turns of thought were interesting on their own, their true intrigue was what they revealed about each character’s struggles and identity.

Park’s plays are known for repetition and revisions, and these abounded in “Topdog/Underdog.” Dualities, such as dressing and undressing, history and modernity, older brother and younger brother, Cookie and Grace, Mom and Dad, saving or squandering, hustling or honest living, and who looks out for whom filled and modulated through the dialogue. When their development was over, “life’s deep questions” popped out of this mix. The only book that Booth possessed was his family photo album, and both brothers looked through it as frequently as they could. They constantly questioned why their parents left each other, why their parents left them, and why their parents showed them things they could not unsee. Of course, all of this resolved in the play’s rousing conclusion whether the audience felt ready for it or not.

One aspect of the play that is not in question is the jaw-dropping talent of Boddie and Dogbe. I would see this play again just for the synergy of these actors. Boddie and Dogbe kept the entire show running at hot barrel through their perfect pacing, lyrical delivery, and impressive emotional range. Amidst all of the fast-changing dynamics, Boddie and Dogbe managed to keep their motivations even hidden from themselves. They also let humor and love shine through in what is primarily a dark play. I could often see the little boy brothers within the grown men. This duo is theatrical excellence at its best, and the standing ovation they received was well deserved.

Also impressive was each actor’s prowess in portraying card hustling. I congratulate the work of card manipulation consultant, Ryan Phillips, for help making their movements mesmerizing. The click of the cards combined with winning words and smooth moves made it easy to understand why passersby would be drawn to the scam.

The production crew did an amazing job creating a world for the story to occur. Set designer Meghan Raham provided a physical space to match the brother’s emotional landscape. Rickety furniture, disheveled wallpaper, and the crumpled pile of Booth’s books showed the threadbare state of the brothers’ lives and hopes. Act 2 provided a brief attempt at covering these realities, but nothing could drown the ever-present glow of the blood-red neon signs outside of Booth’s windows.

Designer Danielle Preston’s costumes were carefully chosen and fitting to the part (vitally important when clothing is a major motif), down to the the level of detail with the price tags on the filched suits. Lighting designer Xavier Pierce was always right on cue, creating evenings, mornings, and afternoons when called for, and pulling forth just the right hue from the blood-red lights. Fight choreographer Casey Kaleba’s skills shone where they should.

Thanks to sound designer Nick Hernandez, the play’s indirections were given one more avenue of travel. The play included one guitar solo, but its primary score was the background noises of Booth’s apartment complex. Street traffic, barking dogs, sirens, and radios were all heard at various points, audiences had to listen closely to recognize that the crying baby may have been on Booth’s side of the wall.

Genuine laughter or insidious intent? Thanks to Round House Theatres’ excellent work, you’ll need to see “Topdog/Underdog” to decide. If you watch closely, you just might just come away with a better understanding of your own life choices and who you want to be when you’re alone. Park wants us to win, after all.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.

Advisory: Contains a simulated gunshot, adult language, depictions of violence, sexual references, and mature themes.

“Topdog/Underdog” EXTENDED through June 30, 2024 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway Bethesda, MD 20814. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.

Folger Theatre’s Metamorphoses Is a Wild and Wacky Trip 

The company of Metamorphoses (Photography-by-Brittany-Diliberto)

Alexandria, VA – Playwright Mary Zimmerman is a national treasure. With two productions currently running in DC theaters and last year’s Helen Hayes Award-winning production of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, her reputation in our area is firmly cemented. I’ll see anything with her name on it. You should too.

In Metamorphoses Zimmerman uses stories from David Slavitt’s translation of the Latin poet Ovid’s masterpiece written in 8 A.D. to form the foundation of this dramedy that puts these ancient myths in modern context describing the history of the world in a hilariously topsy-turvy vision of the classic.

Miss Kitty (Photography-by-Brittany-Diliberto)

Most of the vignettes here are the familiar cautionary tales of greed, lust, incest…oh let’s just proffer the seven deadly sins and call it a day. Under Director Psalmayene 24’s singularly creative interpretation we find an all-Black ensemble playing multiple parts in a flurry of costume changes to express the multiple roles each actor portrays within the individual vignettes.

Gerrad Alex Taylor and Miss Kitty (Photography-by-Brittany-Diliberto)

Psalmayene has conjured up one of the most explosive openings seen on DC stages. It is so stunning that the audience goes utterly silent. Led by the Water Nymph (Miss Kitty) the entourage parades through the center aisle, tribal dancing, whirling, summoning the Gods with African music as they arrive onstage. There they undergo an a sort of transmogrification – as captured slaves undergoing the Middle Passage from their ancestral lands. Tossed by a tempest at sea, their journey reflects the pain and degradation of a slave market. From that dramatic unveiling, our storytellers find themselves in dire circumstances humorously expressed through costume, character and morphing appearance. Because the actors play multiple parts, I found it tricky to puzzle out who played which character. That’s a testimonial to the extraordinary costume design by Mika Eubanks, who hascreated here some of the most beautiful, zany, over-the-top and imaginative costumes I’ve seen all year.

Manu Kumasi, DeJeanette Horne, Kalen Robinson, and Yesenia Iglesias (Photography-by-Brittany-Diliberto)

Imagine the goddess, Iris, sporting a pink Afro with a frilly rainbow-hued and ruffled tutu – another character super fly in full-on glittering gold and white and the morphing of Alcyone (Renee Elizabeth Wilson) who with her beloved husband take the form of birds, reflecting the well-known phrase ‘halcyon days”.

There’s a lot to be said for brevity when it comes to complex themes of love and loss and in these stories, the objective is clear. In each piece we meet the hapless cast of characters and learn of the hot mess they’ve gotten themselves into challenged and complicated by the muse or god positioned on high – in this case upon the balcony. The frailties and passions of mere mortals are highlighted, while the gods, busy spewing their edicts and curses, become fodder for ridicule with the moral of the story revealed after each vision quest.

DeJeanette Horne (Photography-by-Brittany-Diliberto)

The choice of Midas (brilliantly played by Jon Hudson Odom) as the opening myth, is a good one, since we all know the tale of the greedy king who wished everything he touched turned to gold unfortunately that included most his beloved daughter (Kalen Robinson). Clad in a green velvet jacket and crown, Midas rues the day he threw over his daughter for the golden touch and goes on a mission to undo the terrible curse. Odom, totally tricked out, returns as Orpheus busting Motown moves to James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine)” and Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”. And, boom! We are laughing our tailfeathers off.

Metamorphoses shows that it is possible to speak of enigmatic things when they are creatively and hilariously interpreted and passionately performed by an ensemble of such high calibre.

DeJeanette Horne and Renee Elizabeth Wilson (Photography-by-Brittany-Diliberto)

Lighting Designer William K. D’Eugenio and Scenic Designer Lawrence E. Moten III have crucial tasks since there are no set changes and no curtains to draw. Along with Sound Designer and Composer Nick Tha 1DA Hernandez, ambiance is key to support the stories. And because the wigs and hair designs are so over the top, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Designer Rueben D. Echoles.

Highly recommended!

With Edwin Brown as Third Man: Phaeton and others; Dejeanette Horne as First Man: Zeus and others; Renea S. Brown as Third Woman: Myrrha and others; Yesenia Iglesias as First Woman: Aphrodite and others; Billie Krishawn as Second Woman: Eurydice and others; Manu Kumasi as Fourth Man: Vertumnus and others; Gerrad Alex Taylor as Fifth Man: Bacchus and others.

Artistic Director, Karen Ann Daniels; Choreographer, Tony Thomas; Original Composer, Willy Schwarz; Sound Designer, Nick Tha 1DA Henrnandez; Props Designer Deb Thomas; Dramaturg, Faedra Chatard Carpenter PhD.

Through June 16 at the Folger Theatre, Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC – For tickets and information visit www.folger.edu or call the box office at 202 544-7007.

Classic ‘Topdog/Underdog’ transfixes at Round House Theatre

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer-winning play may never have been more gut-busting comedic nor more gut-punching tragic.

By John Stoltenberg June 5, 2024 for DC Theatre Arts

“Who thuh man?!” “Who thuh man?!” So boast and taunt the two African American blood brothers vying for survival and dominance in Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize–winning two-hander now at Round House Theatre. Acclaimed as a modern classic when it premiered in 2001, the cuttingly calibrated script has lost none of its edge, and its story still transfixes. As director Jamil Jude’s electrifying production makes manifest, Parks’ play may never have been more gut-busting comedic nor more gut-punching tragic.

The brothers, named Lincoln and Booth by their father as a joke, share a painful family history: they were abandoned by their parents in their teens and were left with only a treasured photo album and 500 dollars each. They share a rivalry about survival: whether to steal and scam (Booth’s MO is three-card monte on milk cartons; it used to be Lincoln’s too, but he quit) or whether to hold down a demeaning job (Lincoln poses as Honest Abe in an arcade where customers play at assassinating him). The brothers also share a lack of success relating to women: Lincoln’s wife kicked him out (which is why he’s staying with his brother); the woman Booth imagines to be his girlfriend (“She so sweet she makes my teeth hurt”) isn’t interested. The only buddy they refer to, a three-card-monte accomplice, was shot by cops. They really have only each other…until they don’t.

Yao Dogbe (Booth) and Ro Boddie (Lincoln) in ‘Topdog/Underdog.’ Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

The performances of Lincoln and Booth by Ro Boddie and Yao Dogbe respectively are extraordinary and revelatory. Dogbe’s Booth is the more animated and exuberant, adept at physical comedy; Boddie’s Lincoln is initially the more staid, the somber sibling five years older. Yet early in the play Lincoln opens, picking up a guitar and accompanying himself as he sings mournfully (and beautifully):

My dear mother left me, my fathers gone away …
My best girl, she threw me out into the street …
My luck was bad but now it turned to worse …

In flashes, we glimpse the conspiratorial joy the young brothers once had, as in a story about how they secretly gave their father’s car four flat tires. But there’s always a current of competition. For instance, Booth wants Lincoln to return to the three-card Monte hustle, which Lincoln excelled at and which could be, Booth says, “You and me against the world.” Lincoln resists. Are they a fraternal bond or must they be ranked? The question persists.

By turns the tension and tenderness between the brothers chills and warms the stage then chills again in a mesmerizing volley of emotions lobbed by two combatants at the top of their game. And while they’re at it, they uncover so much humor tucked in the script, so much downright delight, that we want them to be okay — both of them. For in this play’s universe of winners and losers, epitomized by a card con, we dearly don’t want one to be underdog, even though that’s the deck their fate has stacked.

TOP LEFT: Yao Dogbe (Booth); TOP RIGHT: Ro Boddie (Lincoln); ABOVE: Yao Dogbe (Booth) and Ro Boddie (Lincoln), in ‘Topdog/Underdog.’ Photos by Margot Schulman Photography.

The story is told in six scenes, and the play takes place in an apartment that in Meghan Raham’s ingeniously high-ceilinged scenic design has seen better days. The walls are worn, and a single bulb hangs from where a chandelier once did; in windows facing what seems a seedy street, neon signage can be seen. Nick Hernandez’s subtle sound design evokes a cityscape outside and apartment life next door (voices, a TV, baby crying). The sense of place in the production is palpable. In the gaps between scenes, director Jude has crafted fascinating wordless vignettes, incorporating Hernandez’s apt music tracks and Xavier Pierce’s dramatic lighting design.

Two program credits hint at the artful physicality in the performance: fight choreographer Casey Kaleba and card manipulation consultant Ryan Phillips. Clothed in Danielle Preston’s versatile costumes — the characters have countless wardrobe changes on stage — the show is solid on all creative counts. It really is a gem.

In Topdog/Underdog, Suzan Lori-Parks lays bare the tragedy in the drive to be on top, to be “thuh man.” And the seriously entertaining Round House Theatre production does that insight all the justice it desperately deserves.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.

Topdog/Underdog plays through June 23, 2024, at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($46–$94), call the box office at 240-644-1100 or go online. (Learn more about special discounts here, accessibility here, and the Free Play program for students here.)

The playbill for Topdog/Underdog is online here.

Audio-described performance: Saturday, June 8 at 2:00 pm
Open-captioned performance: Saturday, June 15 at 2:00 pm
Mask-required performances: Tuesday, June 18 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, June 22 at 2:00 pm
Black Out Night performance on June 19, 2024

Topdog/Underdog
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Jamil Jude

CAST
Ro Boddie: Lincoln
Yao Dogbe: Booth

CREATIVE TEAM
Scenic Designer: Meghan Raham
Costume Designer: Danielle Preston
Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce
Sound Designer: Nick Hernandez
Fight Choreographer: Casey Kaleba
Properties Coordinator: Chelsea Dean
Casting Director: Sarah Cooney
Dramaturg: Naysan Mojgani
Card Manipulation Consultant: Ryan Phillips
Production Stage Manager: Che Wernsman

A devastating revival of ‘Topdog/Underdog’

Round House Theatre revives the devastating, Pulitzer-winning, card-trick psychodrama by Suzan-Lori Parks.

Review by Chris Klimek for the Washington Post June 4, 2024

Yao Dogbe as Booth, left, and Ro Boddie as Lincoln in Round House Theatre’s “Topdog/Underdog.” (Margot Schulman/Round House Theatre)

There’s sibling rivalry, and then there’s the pitched fraternal battle between Lincoln and Booth, the fatefully named brothers at the center of Suzan-Lori Parks’s devastating card-trick psychodrama “Topdog/Underdog.” Had the playwright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this deceptively rich two-hander, named her characters Cain and Abel, she’d still have captured the tragic inevitability of the thing. But she wouldn’t have the recurring chord of cruel, fundamentally American absurdity that has made this Black hybrid of “Waiting for Godot” and “True West,” first performed in the summer of 2001, one of the most rightly celebrated plays of this young, bloody, cruel and absurd century.

Parks had the peculiar genius to imagine a character that encapsulates the contradictions of our shaky republic: A Black man who performs in whiteface as his namesake, our 16th and most revered president. No, he’s not reciting the second inaugural or the Gettysburg Address; he’s letting wannabe John Wilkes Booths shoot him with blanks dozens of times each day at what’s described merely as “an arcade,” in one of Parks’s surreal flourishes.

“It’s easy work,” Lincoln insists to his little brother, if you can ignore the nesting-doll layers of humiliation baked into it — including the fact he fears losing even this dire gig to a wax dummy. Booth is not at all inclined to overlook those not-so-micro aggressions.

“Topdog/Underdog” isn’t set in any specified time or place, but its insular story of two deeply isolated brothers and roommates has uncannily predicted the air of menacing unreality that now surrounds our public discourse.

Director Jamil Jude’s confident Round House Theatre revival, anchored by nimble and entrancing performances from Ro Boddie and Yao Dogbe as Lincoln and Booth, respectively, harvests every note of humor and pathos from Parks’s immortal script. These brothers were abandoned by their parents at an impressionable age, each given an “inheritance” of $500. Their most prized possession is an album of photos from their distinctly un-idyllic childhood, which Booth, in particular, is given to reminiscing about. He even claims to want to emulate their negligent mom and pop, declaring his ambition to sire many offspring and then leave them to figure things out on their own.

Not that either of them have figured out very much. Booth wants Lincoln to return to his former calling as a cardsharp, taking the same slack-jawed rubes who now line up to shoot him for all the cash they’ve got at three-card monte. Booth even rehearses Lincoln’s fast dealing and faster patter (“Watch me now!”) when he’s home alone, and tries to get his brother to address him as “Three Card.”

Ro Boddie as Lincoln. (Margot Schulman)

Alas, his own sticky fingers are more adept at shoplifting than card-throwing. Despite his childish insistence that a woman named Grace is so gobsmacked by his pilfered prosperity that she’s both consented to unprotected sex and demanded that he marry her, Booth is utterly confounded by the perceived unfairness of the fairer sex. As for Lincoln, his wife left him years ago — then briefly sought solace in Booth’s bed!

They’ve had a rough time of it, these two brothers.

The despair they’re both working overtime to keep at bay is so omnipresent and oppressive that Jude, Boddie and Dogbe must mine every kernel of levity just to keep the enterprise from being too depressing to endure. One of these gags comes early, when Dogbe performs a sort of clown-car variation on a striptease, somehow producing an entire pilfered wardrobe from beneath his oversized parka — not just two complete suits, but two pairs of dress shoes. “I stole, and I stole generously,” he gloats. (The costume designer has dressed Dogbe’s Booth in an old Washington Bullets T-shirt, a welcome local touch.)

Yao Dogbe as Booth. (Margot Schulman/Round House Theatre)

Throughout the long evening, the light of a neon sign — one we can’t quite read — suspended outside the window of Meghan Raham’s appropriately dingy set bathes the brothers’ barren home in a hellish crimson cast. The subtextual query beneath each stanza of Parks’s lacerating dialogue is, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We already know the answer, but it hits with the force of a bullet all the same.

Topdog/Underdog, through June 23 at Round House Theatre. About 2½ hours, including an intermission. roundhousetheatre.org.

Folger’s ‘Metamorphoses’ Is As Good As Gold (Review)

The Folger’s “Metamorphoses” charts a fantastic voyage through myth and time, and in brilliantly engaging company.

By André Hereford for Metro Weekly on May 21, 2024

Metamorphoses – Photo: Brittany Diliberto

Life begins with a noise in the dark, a quiet rattle and hum that bursts into a joyful communal dance ended abruptly by violent separation.

From this first myth of creation, to a final heartfelt reunion, Psalmayene 24’s funny, sure-footed staging of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses at the Folger Theatre reaps the rewards of an inspired premise and well-directed company.

Based on Ovid’s epic tales of gods and man, the play condenses the original poem’s 15 books into a compendium of fables following fated figures like King Midas, and doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice. Psalmayene’s production further reimagines these myths as stories set in the African diaspora, performed by an all-Black cast (a first for the Folger).

Given a modern-day milieu, rendered with notes of African art and dance, American pop culture, and witty, accessible humor, this Metamorphoses remixes myths and morality with funk, soul, and hip-hop, and doesn’t miss a beat.

More to the point, the tight, versatile ensemble doesn’t miss a beat of Zimmerman’s archetypal drama, the adventurous direction, or Tony Thomas’ lively choreography.

Metamorphoses - Photo: Brittany Diliberto

Mika Eubanks’ boldly cheeky costumes also speak volumes for the show’s array of kings, queens, nymphs, deities, and celestial beings. Jon Hudson Odom, in a blue velvet blazer and jaunty gold crown, limns a gregariously greedy Midas, who’s left with a palpable sense of heartache once his golden wish has been revealed as a curse.

Gerrad Alex Taylor is a gas as the groovy god Bacchus, the foil in the Midas fable. In looks and attitude, Bacchus serves up a disco fantasy, abetted by the wonders Rueben D. Echoles works with wig and hair design.

‘Mexodus’ is a Thrilling Feat of Theater (Review)

Musically-gifted Orpheus evokes legends bigger than disco. Portrayed in another compelling turn by Odom, Orpheus is embodied with elements of Prince, Michael Jackson, and James Brown. But music and splendor can shift suddenly to misfortune. And, as Orpheus begs for the life of his beloved Eurydice (Billie Krishawn), Odom, for the second time in the evening, finds the heart in tragedy.

As Myrrha, cursed to pine romantically for her father King Cinyras (DeJeanette Horne), Renea S. Brown finds heart, and the delicate balance of tension and abandon, in the aptly unnerving tale of incest. Horne’s Cinyras doesn’t register the same gravitas, although the actor, as with everyone in the ensemble, has a shot to shine in multiple roles.

Taylor, for instance, follows up his amusing Bacchus with a delirious take on Erysichthon, a man who would ravage the earth or sell his own mother to satisfy his unwieldy appetite.

Yesenia Iglesias offers an ethereal Aphrodite in the shipwrecked love story of Alcyone (Renee Elizabeth Wilson) and Ceyx (Horne). And Manu Kumasi earns laughs for his determined Vertumnus, a not quite master of disguise in pursuit of nymph Pomona (Wilson).

Throughout the show, performer Miss Kitty lends mystery and a sprightly physicality to several roles, including as the silent but powerful god Hermes. As a water nymph, she ushers in a great flood with a dance, trailing her diaphanous blue fabric like waves crashing onto shore.

With such fluid ingenuity and rich imagery — persuasively assisted by William K. D’Eugenio’s lighting — the production traverses the heights of love and depths of loss. Ultimately, the mythical journey arrives at a satisfying end, shoring up the timeless pull of these immortal tales. “Let me die still loving, and so, never die.”

Metamorphoses (?????) runs through June 16 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets are $20 to $84, with an Affinity Night performance on June 7 honoring the LGBTQ community.

Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.