Recently I saw Topdog/Underdog at the Huntington Theatre, a play which initially I was really excited to go see. I had heard a decent amount of hype around the play from some friends who had seen it, all of whom had said what a great piece of theatre it was. After doing a very small amount of research I found out that the play was by Suzan-Lori Parks, who I had remembered talking about in class earlier in the semester. After going back and referencing the dramaturgy sheet we were giving in class I found out that in 2002 Parks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog, becoming the first African-American to win the award. Moreover, I remembered from our class discussion that Parks had named August Wilson as one of her biggest artistic influences. Now, full discloser I don’t know much about the work of Wilson or Parks, but I do know that last year when the Huntington put on How I Learned What I Learned and it was one of the best shows I have seen in a long time. At this point I was fully convinced to go and see the show with the secret expectation to love it even more than I loved How I Learned What I Learned. Unfortunately, for many reason (none of which being the text) I didn’t love it and was actually a little disappointed with the Huntington’s performance.
For some semblance of structure, I’d like to talk about what I didn’t like and then what I did like about this show, so here it goes. For me when I walk into any show the first thing I notice and start to critique is the set. As someone who builds scenery this is always the first place my mind goes in the theater. The scenic design for this show was interesting but in my opinion inconsistent. For those who didn’t see the show the set design was basically if someone took a rundown apartment building, cut out a wedge out of a studio apartment and put it on stage. I say it felt inconsistent because there were multiple scenic elements that looked like they should all belong in the world of the play but didn’t seem to connect with each other on stage in any way. For example, both the ceiling and flooring had an exposed front, basically revealing what would be the beam work of the building if in fact you had actually taken a slice of an apartment building. However, the walls didn’t maintain that same scenic vocabulary. The walls of the room where all finished and you couldn’t see into them the same way you could with the ceiling and floor. The “room” where all the action took place was also surrounded by what appeared to be punji pits of wooden spikes that I felt like where only there to fill negative space, but served no purpose to the rest of the set. Especially since they weren’t really lit in a way that kept them in your mind and they often just faded into the blackness of the rest of the stage. Not only did I find myself overlooking these punji pits and the purpose that they served but I also felt like they were an unrealistic element on an otherwise realistic set.
This disconnect between realistic and unrealistic was also something that I noticed in both the lighting and sound design as well. The lighting for the most part was relatively consistent except for a few moments of heightened drama when the color palate would become incredibly colorful and unnatural. For example, in the moments when Lincoln is showing Booth how to throw the cards the lights would go from very amber to really, really red often becoming distracting to the action on stage. There were also moments where I feel as though the lighting design fell short in helping enhance the action onstage. During the “24k Magic” sequence, which I thought was one of the best parts of the show I felt as though we sat in the same lighting cue throughout the whole scene. As fun as that scene was I felt as though in terms of lighting it was a missed opportunity to emphasize the two and their relationship as they got all spruced up in the outfits Booth had stolen.
Similarly, to how I felt about the lighting design there were some elements of the sound design which just didn’t make sense. There were multiple moments throughout the show when Lincoln or Booth’s line would be played back through the speakers with a lot of reverb making it sound very tinny, which didn’t seem to add anything to the performance and just became distracting from the action on stage. The ending moment of the play was also difficult for me to connect with because they chose to record the scream Booth lets out instead of having it be real, which I think might have cause audience members to have a more visceral reaction to it. Instead this scream which was very clearly recorded, was played to the audience with the same reverberation and tinny-ness as the lines before it but also in a more drawn out fashion. This sound cue felt like it lingered in the house for longer than it was supposed to. After seeing the performance and talking with my friends I joked “did anyone get what was up with that scream at the end”? Responses across the board seemed to be unanimous in feeling like it was out of place and would’ve been more effective in that moment had it been real.
Ironically enough the two things I really enjoyed about the show were two things I have very little knowledge of. Those being the costume design and the acting. For a show set in modern day it is difficult to mess up the costuming because inspiration can potentially be all around you. One thing that I found really interesting though was that in the play Booth steals two suits for himself and his brother. When I saw the show, these two suits appeared to be out of the period looking more like they came from the late 80s maybe early 90s. However, after looking back at photos for refence I saw that these suits did in fact look modern. Perhaps it was trick of the eye or just due to how far my seat was (I was in the back row of the orchestra) but they look like they could’ve been two different outfits on stage. Granted this could’ve also been due to the lighting design, or even how the colors interacted with the rest of the set but it was something I had never noticed in any other show.
Aside from the beef I had with the technical elements I thought the show was performed really well. The only issues I had with the performance itself felt like they could’ve been attributed to anyone of the other things I have mentioned. For example, the fact that all the action with throwing the cards was missed by the entire orchestra was due to the fact that it took place on a table on stage that was out of our view. I think from a directorial stand point there were a couple of moments that could’ve been a little more developed. Like perhaps playing on the line Booth says when he asks Lincoln if they even are brothers. From an audience perspective, I felt myself questioning that throughout the entire show. On stage you have two actors, one of which is clearly much older than the other and African American (Lincoln), and then you have Booth who appears much younger and possibly even Hispanic. For me this felt like it would’ve been the moment when we find out that they actually aren’t brothers but instead it seemed to get glazed over as the play kept moving.
I hope I don’t sound too much like a theatre snob when writing about this performance. Honestly, I feel as though I was just disappointed after hearing so much hype about a performance that really didn’t seem that special. I will say that I did take notice of myself using the dramaturgy skills we have been developing this semester before seeing the show and I tried to keep that knowledge in mind when thinking about it and writing this paper. With that said I do believe that perhaps this was just a fluke production and/or performance of this show and that one day I will see a version that can live up to the expectations I set before seeing this show.