Michael Blake and Luc Roderique in the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Topdog/Underdog. Photo by David Cooper.
Michael Blake and Luc Roderique in the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Topdog/Underdog. Photo by David Cooper.

Apple, Cricket, Bronx, North. There are no lack of examples of parents giving their offspring unconventional names. The question remains though, will these names have any effect on their lives as they grow up?

In Suzan-Lori Parks’ dark comedy Topdog/Underdog, a father’s sense of humour may not directly influence how his two sons will turn out, but there is little doubt two black men, named after an assassinated president and his killer, are destined for disaster.

Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, for which she has the distinction of being the first African American woman to receive the honor for drama, focuses on Lincoln and Booth, brothers living in an unnamed inner-city apartment.

The older Lincoln has retired from three-card Monte after a game goes terribly wrong. Ironically, he finds steady work playing his presidential namesake at a local arcade (“It’s a sit down job, with benefits”). Complete with stovepipe hat and white face, he is repeatedly shot in the back-of-the-head by customers who pay for the opportunity to re-enact the president’s assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.

The younger, jobless, Booth supplements the household income by “boosting” whatever the weekly budget does not allow. With dreams of making big money on the streets orchestrating his own three-card con, he spends much of his time practicing and pestering his brother to teach him.

But while Park’s social commentary as metaphor has resonance, and is a big part of what drives her play, it is in her contemporary re-telling of the Cain and Abel story which makes this production so compelling. This is largely due to the magnetic performances of Michael Blake as Lincoln, and Luc Roderique as Booth.

Under the direction of Dean Paul Gibson, there is a tangible connection between Blake and Roderique which makes their life together feel authentic.

Playing the older sibling, Blake almost dances about the stage. His first act monologue has him poised on one foot, giving the illusion of slight hesitation and imbalance, as he ponders his lot in life. A slight refinement contrasts wonderfully with Roderique who winds his Booth tight, releases and ultimately breaks.

It is in how the two men interact though which really makes this production sing. Even as Lincoln questions the younger Booth as to their familial connection (“I know we’re brothers, but are we really brothers, you know, blood brothers…?”), there is no denying their relationship. Because of their ultimately believable performances, the play’s unsurprising conclusion, despite an attempt by the playwright at misdirection, still packs a punch.

Set designer Shizuka Kai gives a cut-away of the grungy room in which the two live. No bigger than many of the SRO’s in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, it is all lit by Itai Erdal in contrasts of the stark overhead fluorescent and the more moody; the passage of time is indicated by moving light through the windows. Sound designer Julie Casselman brings contemporary hip-hop through the transitions, and Carmen Alatorre’s costumes are spot-on.

It is not difficult to see how lesser performances could result in something much more tedious. Fortunately, this Arts Club Theatre Company production has Blake and Roderique to bring it to life. Eminently watchable, they draw and sustain a view into a world most of us with privilege will likely never fully comprehend.

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the BMO Theatre Centre (162 W 1st Ave, Vancouver) until February 11. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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