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Bob Goepfert: In Lenox, The Play's The Thing

Deaon Griffin-Pressley and Bryce Michael Wood in "Top Dog/Underdog"
Daniel Rader
Shakespeare & Company
Deaon Griffin-Pressley and Bryce Michael Wood in "Top Dog/Underdog"

Shakespeare & Company is like one-stop shopping for theater.  It presents a diverse offering of work using their various spaces to offer dramas, comedies and, of course, the classics.   This is vividly illustrated in the two offerings that are currently at the Lenox, Mass. venue. “Top Dog/Underdog” is an intense, thoughtful drama about two African-American Brothers struggling with identity – personal and cultural.   It’s thoughtful, wise and marvelously performed.  It continues on the main stage through September 8.

Also playing, but only through September 1, is Shakespeare’s comedy “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”   No one ever refers to the play as a great work, but this production is so much fun it’s like that guy said in an earlier Shakespeare & Company production – “some have greatness thrust upon them.”   It’s performed outdoors at the intimate Roman Garden Theatre.

“Top Dog/Underdog” is a deceptive play. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks in 2001, it opened Off-Broadway and moved to Broadway where it established Parks as a writer who could combine lyrical beauty with sensitive material.  It won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The play is about two African-American brothers who share a one room apartment.  One is named Lincoln; the other Booth. They are so named because their father thought it was funny.   This tells you about their family life and signals that the play is filled with dark humor.    

Though a very original work, you sense the influence of Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and even Jean-Paul Sartre in the writing.  Absurdist in tone, this is a show that, thanks to the controlled direction by Reggie Life, is very natural in presentation.  Along with many moments of emotional power, it also has several very comedic scenes.

Lincoln was once an expert Three Card Monte dealer who, after the shooting of an accomplice, gave up the scam.  Lincoln now works in white-face, dressed as Abraham Lincoln as a target in an arcade.  His fear is he will be replaced by a white dummy.  He’s been living with his younger brother since his marriage collapsed.

The unemployed Booth aspires to be a card dealer like his older brother, but his real skill is shoplifting.  His pastime is fantasizing about a woman named Grace.

This is a play that emphasizes duality.   Because the central theme centers on family, it is a work that the whitest audience member can relate to.  But make no mistake, this is a play about the Black experience.    It is a work that is blunt in defining the frustrations of a life where opportunity is limited, cycles of despair are perpetuated and violence is a logical way to sooth frustrations.

This duality of purpose makes “Top Dog/Underdog” a work that can be appreciated by all audiences.  It speaks about the disenfranchised in a way that makes it a human problem, not just a minority issue.

Remarkable performances by Deaon Griffin-Pressley as Booth and Bryce Michael Wood as Lincoln make the two hours and fifteen minute presentation absorbing and insightful.  “Top Dog/Underdog” is one of the best theater experiences of the season and continues at the same Packer Theatre through September 8.   It should not be missed.

However, if you prefer to end you summer on a lighter note, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is the production to attend.   It’s light-hearted, funny and never provokes a deep thought about the meaning of life, or anything else.

Indeed, the plot is so frail, if it were not for such an energetic production you might have a problem sustaining interest in the problems of John Falstaff, who is constantly outsmarted by the two wives he is trying to seduce.

I have a rule about Shakespeare & Company.  That is if Kevin Coleman is directing a production, it’s mandatory to see it.  He’s a gifted clown who knows how to work with a cast to maximize the humor in any text.   There are a lot of young performers in this cast and Coleman gives each a defining characteristic that is not only funny, but provides their supporting characters a purpose throughout the play.

Wisely, the lead roles are performed with Shakespeare & Company veterans for whom broad characterizations are second nature and delivering Shakespeare’s comic lines is as easy as breathing.  

Nigel Gore’s portrayal is not the defining interpretation of Falstaff, but it is an indelible portrait of the blustering fool whose overreaching vanity always gets him in trouble.   Gore creates a rascal who is impossible to dislike.  As the jealous husband, Frank Ford, who is always foiled as he tries to catch his wife with Falstaff,  Martin Jason Asprey is the epitome of frustration.   Individually, each offers a fun performance.  As a team they are even better.

“Merry Wives of Windsor” is a summer treat that closes September 1.

For tickets and schedule information:  shakepeare.org or  413-637-3353

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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