Of the many compelling contradictions in Topdog/Underdog, I’m particularly obsessed with the way it simultaneously lays all its cards on the table while also seeming to withhold the most crucial one. With its purposefully unsubtle main reference and a cheeky Chekovian gun, Suzan-Lori Parks’ acclaimed play—and Tawiah M ’Carthy’s robust and seething production for Canadian Stage—straight up tells you what’s going to happen and yet the tension barely lets up.
Lincoln and Booth (a nudge and a wink) are brothers; their names are a dark, prophetic joke from their now absent father. Both parents had split the scene when they were still boys and they’ve struggled to take care of each other ever since. Growing up poor and Black, forces at work against them have warped their world and a festering hostility builds.
Their shared apartment is a roped off boxing ring in the corner of the theatre. Rachel Forbes‘ set pushes that blatant metaphor and enriches it with realistic, thoroughly lived-in textures. This cobbled together home has a shabby, tenacious charm with its milk crates and mangy armchair.
Mazin Elsadig’s Booth has a boastful charisma, seems always primed for a fight. Surrounding himself with the heaps of clothing he’s boosted, he’s got an impressive aura of tough machismo. It’s a precarious front, though, and the strain is gradually revealed as he tries to capture his older brother’s former glory as a skilled card sharp.
Lincoln has recently tried to earn a legit living. His current gig as a Lincoln impersonator is—another resonant contradiction!—a source of both pride and shame. In top hat and grease-painted white face, he carries the absurdity with a cheerful dignity. Sébastien Heins is statuesque, jovial and unguarded—until Booth finds some awful weak spot in his affable facade and he goes ominously silent and still.
There is danger here, even when they are laughing together, because their survival has been so hard-won. Their competition is an elegant, fraught dance. The bell that marks scene transitions as rounds of a boxing match enhances this dynamic quite brazenly, but Elsadig and Heins give it fleshy nuance. The potential for violence is coiled in their bodies and our awareness of it ebbs and flows with their shifting moods.
It’s an astonishing feature of both the text and performances that the rote movement and chanting of the card trick that figures so prominently, repeated over and over again, never seems tedious. The rhythm becomes familiar, leads us into a false sense of security, then builds to a ritualistic frenzy. It’s exhilarating—until that devastating reveal.
The tragedy that unfolds is perfectly classical in its dramatic inevitability, but all of that catharsis carries an awful, intimate truth that grounds us: it is, ultimately, avoidable. The text and theatrical aesthetic are deliberate and fable-like, lampshading all the play’s thematic cleverness, but the messy, aching hurt in the centre of it all is very real—an anguished, angry gasp.