'Topdog/Underdog' asks 'What's real?'

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LENOX — "What is, and what ain't?"

It's the prevailing question in Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog," the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that pits adult brothers against one another and, in the process, poignantly reflects on masculinity and African American history. During separate interviews in advance of a production that opens Friday at Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse, actors Bryce Michael Wood and Deaon Griffin-Pressley and director Regge Life all mentioned the query, referencing the play's script. Though the work's first production was at New York City's Public Theater in 2001, its focus on the contrast between what's real and what's fake certainly hasn't lost any relevance in the years since.

"I think we're having a hard time nowadays figuring out what is and what ain't," Life said.

The brothers are, too. One of them, Lincoln, has a job impersonating the famous U.S. president at an arcade after quitting his lucrative three-card Monte hustle. His younger brother, Booth, is practicing the card scheme, hoping to lure Lincoln back into the game while they're staying together.

"He's desperate right now," Griffin-Pressley said of his character, Booth. "He doesn't want to work a 9-to-5 job. He doesn't want to do the average life because it doesn't bring in enough money."

Lincoln, however, appreciates his job and resists his brother's pleas.

"He's done with it. He's now on the straight and narrow," Wood said of his character.

Eventually, Lincoln's job is jeopardized, forcing him to take Booth's proposition more seriously. Their potential collaboration is against the odds. Their parents abandoned them and passed down questionable decision-making skills.

"Both of these men have learned from each of the parents in a very diabolical way because each parent picked one as their favorite," Life said, "and as it says in the play, the father named them Lincoln and Booth [John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln] as a joke, as a, 'Let's set them against each other right from the start.'"

The brothers' arguments are both brutal and humorous, focusing on women, money and race, among other weighty topics. For example, Booth mocks Lincoln for impersonating a white man. (Both men are black.) Lincoln's job evokes Parks' "The America Play," which features an African American character playing Lincoln. Wood, who has worked with Parks before, appreciates the playwright's character-driven works.

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"The characters are so real, damn near four-dimensional," he said.

The actor is in his first Shakespeare & Company season. He most recently starred as Duke Orsino in "Twelfth Night" at the Tina Packer Playhouse. Griffin-Pressley played Sebastian. They didn't share much time onstage, but that didn't stop them from building a rapport for this two-hander behind the scenes.

"We connected from the jump," Wood said.

For Griffin-Pressley, now in his fourth season at the Lenox company, Booth is a different kind of role.

"I haven't done a contemporary play in about five years, and I'm normally cast as the good guy, the hero, the charmer or whatever in Shakespeare. And I love playing those parts," Griffin-Pressley said. "In this part, I was like, 'Oh, that's a challenge.' At first I was like, 'Wow, you want me to go there,' because it's heavy material."

Griffin-Pressley also relished the idea of two adult brothers living together. By this point, they know each other's tricks.

"You know the buttons to push, and those buttons are pushed often in this play, and I think that's where the humor really pops out," he said.

Parks' ability to mix the light and the weighty resonated with the director when he saw its original production with Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle.

"You're not going to be depressed. You're going to have a good time," Life said. "You're going to take an incredible journey with these two brothers. You're going to laugh out loud, but you're also going to have some moments where you feel challenged, and you're going to be arrested by the play. And oftentimes, you can't go to the theater and get both."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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