In Topdog/Underdog, actors deftly build a sibling rivalry of Greek proportions

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      By Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on Friday, January 26. Continues until February 11

      Lincoln and Booth are African-American brothers, named by a father with a peculiar sense of humour. He made a joke out of naming the elder for a president and the younger after Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth.

      Their parents left them when Lincoln (Michael Blake) was 16 years old and Booth was just 11. We find them together again roughly two decades later in Topdog/Underdog, trying to scrape by in a grotty one-room apartment.

      Recently divorced, Lincoln has landed a steady, if unusual, job at an amusement arcade. He dresses up as his namesake, complete with white face paint, and tourists re-create the president's assassination with a cap gun. Booth (Luc Roderique) is unemployed and at loose ends. He aspires to the criminal life his brother left behind, conning tourists with three-card monte.

      It’s against this backdrop of poverty and unfulfilled dreams that Topdog/Underdog plays out. In this two-hander, the performers almost never leave the stage. Though it’s a very intimate play, there’s the sense of something epic and timeless in this battle between brothers. The power shifts back and forth as they poke and prod at each other’s soft spots—Lincoln’s failed marriage, Booth’s inaction.

      The play’s creator, Suzan-Lori Parks, won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002 for this script, making her the first African-American woman to do so. It’s a work that’s dense with layers of meaning, where moments circle back on each other—for example, Lincoln performing a death over and over again for white employers who pay him less than his white predecessor. In another exchange, Lincoln promises his brother that “your luck will change,” when, in the con game of three-card monte, luck is not involved.

      Shizuka Kai’s set is a giant shoebox gnawed open by a dog. We look in through torn-open walls and split window frames. A lamp hangs from a ragged chunk of ceiling, improbably floating above the room. In most theatrical designs, the fourth wall is entirely removed. Here, a lip of that wall remains, increasing the show’s sense of imprisonment.

      Lighting designer Itai Erdal employs some subtle tricks to reinforce this feeling. A knife-sharp blade of light crosses the floor between scenes to cleverly convey the passage of time.

      It’s a script that’s simultaneously lyrical and very challenging. Both Blake and Roderique deftly manage the sheer volume of words. In Lincoln, Blake finds a kind of louche lethargy that makes his dexterous handling of the cards all the more convincing. Roderique, on the other hand, is all pent up, an ignited rocket that refuses to lift off.

      As the houselights dim at the start of the show, Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” is played. Lamar raps “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA.” Booth and Lincoln share all of that, and they share it with us in this modern Greek tragedy.