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Topdog/Underdog

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The long-gone father of the young African-American siblings introduced in Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize?winning play named his sons Lincoln and Booth as a joke, but the choice could not be more prophetic. Linc is proud to have finally landed a decent job, playing the 16th president in whiteface at an amusement arcade, wearing the great man's greatcoat and top hat so tourists can pretend to shoot him in the skull with a phony pistol. Instead of throwing cards in sidewalk games of three-card monte, Linc now gets repeatedly assassinated each day in the bizarre re-enactment of his namesake's end. At the same time, Booth endlessly practices his brother's old con game in the seedy walk-up apartment the two share, hoping to someday match Linc's former prowess as a flimflam man.

Initially it's hard to imagine that life could be this dysfunctional for all those shabbily dressed shadow people we see glaring at us as we traverse downtown American life in places with names such as the Bowery or Skid Row, but as we learn more about the brothers' shocking early days, when they were sanctioned to watch--or even participate in--their parents' fertile extracurricular sex lives until they were abandoned at ages 16 and 11, the brothers do not seem so mysterious--or monstrous--after all.

Topdog/Underdog is a major event. Parks' language, which eloquently makes euphony out of Ebonics, is the first wonder, followed by the monumental and multileveled performances of Harold Perrineau and Larry Gilliard Jr. Still, the most palpable star is the staging of George C. Wolfe, so precise that his work is almost a third character. Wolfe dazzles with his signature vision, turning what could be a static, wordy piece into a modern-day rapid-fire farce by using the movements and speech of the characters to soon resemble a confidence game. All is lit with stark brilliance by Scott Zielinski, who craftily creates an entity that at first appears to be organic to the room, then evolves into a premonitory minstrel-show effect with looming, ominous shadows cast on the peeling wallpaper of the apartment's back wall.

Parks' mission is to explore a society most of us only speculate exists. There is little reason to question what made her simple two-character masterpiece worthy of the Pulitzer: It is a definitive chronicle of our time, a play that will be revived again and again over the decades to come. Parks' language is as uniquely individual to our contemporary world as Shakespeare's was to his, creating a music with which to identify our time, celebrating a forgotten portion of our society doomed by civilization's often heartless disregard of those less fortunate.

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