Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review: 'Topdog/Underdog'

On the fifth floor of Walnut Street Theatre, Kash Goins and Roderick Slocum offer a convincing version of Suzan Lori-Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'Topdog/Underdog'

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Roderick Slocum and Kash Goins in "Topdog/Underdog" on Walnut Street Theatre's fifth-floor stage. Photo by Kim-Thao Nguyen.

By Howard Shapiro

It's such a pleasure to watch a production make something more of a play than seems possible. Two actors -- Kash Goins and Roderick Slocum -- are doing just that in Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks' 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning play about two African American brothers living on life's underside.

I've never been much for the play, which is too long in the first act at four substantial but realistic scenes, and becomes less believable in the two-scene second act, when family revelations -- and hints at family revelations -- seem to come pretty late in the game.

But under Malika Oyetimein's precise and thoughtful direction, this Topdog/Underdog, on Walnut Street Theatre's fifth-floor stage, is both fluid and fluent.

Goins, a theater artist who is increasingly visible in the region and an imposing actor, plays Lincoln -- a man with a past as a skilled three-card monte dealer on the streets, where the gambling slight-of-hand has apparently caused the murder of one of his cohorts. He's left the game and taken a job with benefits as the human target in a shooting gallery, dressed in a top-hat, fake beard and whiteface so he can be Abraham Lincoln and people can pretend to be John Wilkes Booth as they fire cap guns at him. Consider for a few seconds the tangle of metaphors in that setup.

His brother, named Booth, is played by Slocum. Booth wants so badly to be a three-card-monte dealer, it hurts. But he shows no aptitude for moving the cards around in the flash it takes to confuse a patsy. So he lives, day to day, in a world of lies, inside a broken down apartment with no running water, no bathroom and no sink, which he temporarily shares with his bro. (The aptly grungy set is by Britt Plunkett.)

Goins - whose GoKash Productions is responsible for the show -- is wonderfully nuanced in a role that demands it; his Lincoln is, after all, caught in traps -- a humiliating regular job after a former street life of plenty, plus the apartment he shares with a volatile, do-nothing brother. Slocum is an excellent match in talent, delivering a kinetic Booth whose volatile disposition flip-flops with his empty cockiness.

Together, they give the play an essence I never before discerned. And watching them provide it so naturally is a substantial part of the satisfaction.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------Topdog/Underdog: Through June 17 at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $25. Information: www.gokashproductions.com.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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