‘Topdog/Underdog’ Performance Brings Laughter and Drama

By Megan Ginise

Special To The Collegian

Matthew Vieira/The Collegian Theater arts students Myles Bullock and Ryan Woods prepare in the dressing room before their performance of "Topdog/Underdog" on Saturday.

Matthew Vieira/The Collegian
Theater arts students Myles Bullock and Ryan Woods prepare in the dressing room before their performance of “Topdog/Underdog” on Saturday.

A student-run production of “Topdog/ Underdog,” under the direction of Fresno State theater professor Thomas Whit-Ellis, captivated audiences on Friday and Saturday.

“Topdog,” written by Suzan Lori-Parks, won a Pulitzer Prize for best drama in 2002 and details the lives of two African-American men living and struggling against fate and one another.

Parks wove an intertwined comedic drama that is both ironic and historical.

Ryan Woods, a theater arts major, and Myles Bullock, who is majoring in theater arts and business, gave deft, intuitive performances as the two brothers at odds.

The character Lincoln, played by Woods, adorned with whiteface and a beard, works at a steady job as the actor of a shooting-game arcade type version of President Abraham Lincoln’s murder, where paying customers can relive and re-enact the famous event as the shooter.

Lincoln’s brother Booth, played by Bullock, steals or “boosts” for a living and constantly tries to one-up his older brother through the use of a card game called “three-card monte.”
“Topdog” was a satiric performance of a very well-constructed, deeply focused play.

With a cast member sheet of only two, both Bullock and Woods showed depth and charisma that captivated audiences.

From the comedy of seeing the image of Lincoln flailing like some sort of sea-animal on the floor yelling expletives to Booth’s emotional last scene as he speaks to his brother’s limp body, there is a poignancy to the humor and the sadness.

The dualism of the play repeats itself again and again in a motif of conning and cards, of fate and choice.

Whit-Ellis spoke about the importance of this particular game the boys play with one another.

“It’s a con game,” he said. “These people are on the grift, which means that they make a living out of tricking people out of their money, and three-card monte is just another form of grifting. Just like being a pool shark or a basketball player on the court, you have to let your opponent, your mark or your sucker, win a little bit and reel them in.”

“Underneath that there’s a subplot of how these kids were raised, how they were abandoned by their own parents, how they were forced to live on the street at very early ages. They have to survive.”

Ellis praised Parks’ work for it’s versatility as well as its importance starting off African-American history month with a gritty performance.

“On the surface, it’s kind of negative, but underneath, it’s about family,” Ellis said. “It’s about racism and classism and trying to survive and how that’s perverted both their motivations and their ability to operate kind-of normally in society. All the layers…make it such a fun play to do, but it’s not for everybody.”

The pairing of wit and violence spurred a startling production and asked audiences exactly when and how an identity is lost and another is built.

Skillfully acted and directed, the production kept audiences alert and anticipatory from its onset to the final curtain, propelling the audience to keep watching, to look deeper for that two of spades amongst a barrage of overtly sensitized reality.

Booth’s chilling words at the onset of the play remain hauntingly captivating throughout: “Watch me, watch me close now,” as the cards shuffle on in the night.

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