Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Cards They've Been Dealt

By John Glore

The first three words in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog are “Watch me close.” You’ll hear those same three words repeated frequently over the course of the play. They’re a recurring motif in the three-card monte chatter that both of the play’s characters rehearse—one of them delivering its cadences with an expertise born of years of successful hustling, the other stumbling awkwardly through the routine in an effort to pick up its moves and its lingo.

“Watch me close” means “I’m going to do everything I can to trick you, to hustle you, to take what’s yours, to gain the upper hand.” The two men in Topdog/Underdog—African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth—need to be watched closely because they have dedicated their lives to various forms of hustling. They had no choice. Abandoned at an early age by both parents, they’ve had to fend for themselves and do whatever was necessary to survive in a world where the establishment cards were stacked against them. So they’ve played their own games by their own rules and they’ve learned never to show their cards or their true colors.

Soojin Lee's costume rending for Booth.
The problem for Lincoln and Booth is that they’re equally capable of conning each other—and themselves. They’ve been playing the game for so long they don’t know how to be real with one another, whatever that means. They have lived together since Lincoln’s marriage fell apart, and their shared life is marked by true brotherly love. But the need to be a topdog—so as not to feel like an underdog—doesn’t go away when they deal with one another.

Lincoln is the older brother and has looked after Booth ever since they were left on their own. Linc took up “throwing the cards” to put food on the table—and then became so good at it that his bankroll grew exponentially. He might still be hustling people on the street corner, but the murder of his closest friend and confederate some years back convinced him it was time to get out of the game. Since then he’s taken a legit job impersonating Abraham Lincoln—in beard, topcoat, stovepipe hat and whiteface—at an arcade where people pay to play the role of John Wilkes Booth in a reenactment of the Ford’s Theatre assassination. The compensation is a pittance compared to what Linc made throwing the cards, but it pays the rent and leaves the two brothers with just enough money for food and liquor.

Booth has no job. He relies on Lincoln to cover his needs, and shoplifts to satisfy his desire for nice clothes and other nonessentials. The two men have settled into a comfortable routine, but Booth isn’t content with their impoverished life. He wants the kind of money he used to see Lincoln throwing around. He wants the respect that kind of money can buy. And he wants a woman—a particular woman by the name of Grace. His pursuit of those desires—and an unexpected turn of events that threatens to rob Lincoln of what’s left of his dignity—leads to a climactic reckoning between the two brothers.

Soojin Lee's costume rendering for Lincoln.
Topdog/Underdog has many of the trappings of gritty, hyper-real urban drama (mixed with ample amounts of humor), but watch and listen closely and you’ll come to appreciate its poetic dimension and heightened theatricality. Suzan-Lori Parks, who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Topdog, is a true poet of the theatre. She wields language with a dazzling combination of artistic precision and apparent spontaneity that would make a jazz master envious. Her sense of myth and metaphor and her bold use of a dramatic form with roots in ancient Greek tragedy allow Topdog to transcend its squalid surface reality and acquire a deeper resonance and universality. 

Sibling rivalry, after all, is as old as Cain and Abel, and the struggle between one person (or one group of people) for domination over another has driven world history ever since. America’s Civil War was a battle of brother against brother whose final chapter was written in that fateful confrontation in Ford’s Theatre that Linc now re-enacts day after day. While John Wilkes Booth claimed the Confederacy as his cause and his motive for assassination, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, deep down, he was simply an underdog trying to find some way to become a topdog.

So much history and myth runs through Lincoln and Booth’s veins as they circle one another in the small, ramshackle apartment that is their home and the stage for the struggle between topdog and underdog. Who will come out on top this time? What part will destiny play in the outcome of their game of chance?

Watch them close and see what happens.

A House Divided

When set designer Shaun Motley (Fences, SCR 2010) began looking for an approach to the scenic design for Topdog/Underdog, he wanted to find a visual equivalent for the psychic fissures that split the world of the play, and for the layers of history that underlie the decaying surface of that world.  That brought to his mind the work of Gordon Matta-Clark.

Shaun Motley's set rendering for Topdog/Underdog.
An artist trained as an architect, Matta-Clark used abandoned houses, buildings and warehouses as the canvas for his best known work in the 1970s. He would take a chainsaw to the walls, floors and ceilings, sometimes literally splitting a building down the middle or cutting gaping holes into its sides. The result, according to an article in The New York Times, “offered potent commentary on both the decay of the American city and the growing sense that the American dream was evaporating.” Yet despite the destructive and deconstructive impulse behind his work, the article observes, Matta-Clark showed an exceptional ability “to extract raw beauty from the dark, decrepit corners of a crumbling city.”

Shaun Motley's set rendering for Topdog/Underdog.
Motley shared Matta-Clark’s work with director Seret Scott, who agreed that it evoked some of the more important metaphorical currents in Suzan-Lori Parks’ play—whose very title is split down the middle by a slash—while also suggesting a deceptively realistic framework for the play’s sly poetic realism. Matta-Clark’s vision seemed a perfect complement to a play that finds raw beauty in something as simple and mercenary as a game of three-card monte—and which uses as its epigraph Ralph Waldo Emerson’s celebration of the divine nature of a weed growing beside a wall.

Matta-Clark’s influence on the set design for SCR’s production will be apparent on the Julianne Argyros Stage, as Lincoln and Booth play out their brotherly cage-match amid Motley’s peeling, cracked walls. Their run-down apartment may look as real as any urban blight, but when the light shines through its fissures, it illuminates the metaphor of a split household, a broken home, a decaying dream.

To learn more about the work of Gordon Matta-Clark:

The New York Times article about a Matta-Clark retrospective
Images of Matta-Clark’s work

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

SCR Gala Gets Going (Early)

Gala Chair Beth Phelps.
During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when most people were in holiday mode, SCR’s 2012 Gala Ball Chair Beth Phelps was on the job.

On Thursday, December 29, she spent the afternoon in meetings with Director of Development Susan Reeder and Special Events Manager Lauren Hovey, pausing only for a quick photo op.

According to Beth, it’s never too early to start planning the Gala Ball, which opens the theatrical and social seasons in Orange County and donates the first and one of the largest gifts to SCR’s Annual Fund.  “We already have a date and a venue, and now we begin choosing a theme and a name for our event.  I don’t want to miss a moment of that!”

Beth and her husband Tom, now in his second term as President of SCR’s Board of Trustees, are First Nights subscribers to both stages, members of the Platinum Circle of donors and two-time members of the Playwright’s Circle, which this season will underwrite the world premiere of Cloudlands.

The Gala will be held at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa on Saturday, September 8, 2012.  For more information (including theme and name!) or to find out how to join the fun, call Susan Reeder at (714) 708-5518.

First day on the job!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Is That a Mariachi Band by the Manger?

When you come to South Coast Repertory to see A Christmas Carol this month, take a few extra moments to check out the nacimiento, or nativity scene, in the lobby. The six-foot homage to holiday cheer is the work of Amigas de la Cultura, a trio of current and retired school teachers dedicated to educating the community about Hispanic cultures and peoples. The ladies have been putting together displays in SCR's lobby every Christmas for more than 15 years.

Traditionally, a Mexican family sets out their nacimiento on December 16, the first day of Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration of the birth of Christ. Though each display is centered around a classic nativity scene, individual families may contribute personal touches, the way many American families collect Christmas ornaments for their tree. As collections grow, nacimientos can take over entire rooms! The size and scale of the objects is irrelevant, adding a lighthearted touch to the scene.

 These seemingly incongruous add-ins often have symbolic meaning. In SCR's nacimiento look for devils, who represent pranksters trying to prevent pilgrims from getting to Bethlehem, and a hermit, standing alone in his cave, whose job it is to thwart the pranksters' efforts. Cartoon characters such as Snow White, Elmo and Daffy Duck are placed in the scene to capture little ones' attention, while diverse characters such as a tortilla maker, a mariachi band and citizens in an Alpine village show that all are welcome at the birth of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

‘Studio SCR’ Showcases Small, Innovative SoCal Arts Companies

South Coast Repertory is partnering with some of SoCal’s most intriguing artists to present a series of eclectic, contemporary theatre in its intimate Nicholas Studio.

Studio SCR (formerly the Studio Series) will feature an array of adventurous artists, including:

Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews
Four Clowns
Poor Dog Group
Monkey Wrench Collective
Theatre Movement Bazaar
Robert Cucuzza and Transit Authority

The line-up will also include SCRamble, a late-night cabaret featuring short pieces by eight or nine local acts.

“We’re looking forward to partnering with such a talented group of artists,” said SCR Artistic Director Marc Masterson. “These sorts of collaborations provide exciting opportunities. They give us the chance to forge new artistic relationships, and give audiences a chance to enjoy the incredible diversity of Southern California’s performing arts scene—all under one roof.”

Leading the project is Oanh Nguyen, SCR’s producing associate and the artistic director of the Chance Theater, whose production of Jesus Hates Me in the Nicholas Studio two years ago kicked off the pilot program that has evolved into Studio SCR.

“It's an exciting mix of genre-smashing work from local artists,” Nguyen said.  “We have everything from hip-hop theatre to physical theatre, from irreverent clowns to ensemble-driven modern adaptations of classic works.”

Ticket prices vary by production, and range from $15 to $35. You can buy tickets and read more about the artists at Meanwhile, here’s a closer look at the line-up:

The Word Begins
Written and performed by Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews
Directed and developed by Robert Egan
8 p.m. Jan. 19-21

Nominated for three Helen Hayes Awards and named L.A. Weekly and Backstage West Critic’s Picks, The Word Begins follows the hilarious and provocative journey of two men discovering the power of words to define love, faith, race and humanity in America. Mashing up theater, spoken word, comedy and hip-hop, Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews deliver a high-energy performance in this fresh new satire that examines the current cultural landscape.

The Word Begins is presented in association with the Off Center Festival of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Four Clowns
Jeremy Aluma
8 p.m. Feb. 17, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 18, 2 p.m. Feb. 19

Four Clowns is a physical, musical and emotional journey into what it means to be human. The four clowns—Sad, Mischievous, Angry and Nervous—reminisce about their pasts in a show fueled by audience interaction. As the old adage goes, “laughter is the best medicine,” so come witness how the most tragic moments in one's life can give rise to the biggest laughs. As the clowns tell their tales of woe and elation from childhood to adulthood, we discover that they are all the same...and so are we.

Various artists
10 p.m. Feb. 18

Grab a drink and settle in for a bold new blend of alternative theatre, comedy, dance, music and interdisciplinary collaborations as some of SoCal’s most interesting artists serve up  unforgettable theatrical delights in 10-minute increments.

The Internationalists
Poor Dog Group
8 p.m. March 2, 2 and 8 p.m. March 3, 2 p.m. March 4

Unaware of the mounting threat of Sputnik, the first Russian satellite to orbit the Earth, America finds its global dominance in question. Vintage newsreels, NASA’s flight records and modern, user-generated information delivery systems all collide to give a glimpse into our cyber-reality. The Internationalists investigates the race to outer space through the lens of a youthful generation brought up in the Technology Age.

pool (no water)
Monkey Wrench Collective
8 p.m. May 4, 2 and 8 p.m. May 5, 2 p.m. May 6

A famous artist invites several old friends to her luxurious new home and, for one night only, the group of artists is back together. Celebrations come to an abrupt end when the host suffers a horrific accident and an almost unthinkable plan starts to take shape: Could her suffering be their next art project? This is Monkey Wrench Collective’s revival of its critically-acclaimed 2010 U.S. premiere of Mark Ravenhill’s play.

Anton’s Uncles
Theatre Movement Bazaar
8 p.m. June 8, 2 and 8 p.m. June 9, 2 p.m. June 10

A fresh, funny, and physical look at Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. In this original work—winner of an Outstanding Theatre Award at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival—only the men remain, wrestling with their desires and pressed to examine a life unlived. Los Angeles-based Theatre Movement Bazaar explodes this classic play, merging the original text with new writing, movement, dancing and singing to emphasize the unspoken, unseen and unexpressed.

Robert Cucuzza and Transit Authority
8 p.m. June 22, 2 and 8 p.m. June 23, 2 p.m. June 24

In this darkly comic reinvention of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, writer/director Robert Cucuzza distills an essential tale of class and sexual power dynamics and transports it to modern-day Pittsburgh. Cattywampus traces the story of Julie as she tries to escape the clutches of her disinterested husband. She seduces an unsophisticated co-worker, Donnie, determined that he’s her escape out of married misery, gambling it all on his cracked plan to relocate to Florida. But in a world that is so economically out-of-whack, she finds that her dreams of flight are no match for fate.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Was Ever A Scarf So Red?"

Ebenezer Scrooge's whimsical red scarf has become a symbol of A Christmas Carol here at South Coast Repertory, but you won't find any mention of Fred's cozy gift to his uncle in Charles Dickens' original version. Adapter Jerry Patch added the bright element to the script to offer a visual, tangible symbol of Scrooge's transformation following his visit from the spirits. "Scrooge leaves the gift in the box in his office, but it shows up later in his bed," says Patch. "He wants to explain it away, but he can't. It's a mini-miracle."

The scarf Hal Landon Jr. wraps around his neck in the play has been in use for 20 years, and is an astonishing 12 feet long. You can purchase a similar one in SCR's gift shop, or make your own with a pair of knitting needles, a ball of yarn and your own two hands. All you need to know is a simple garter stitch, demonstrated in our slide show, and you are on your way! Beginning knitters should try an acrylic-blend yarn that isn't too slippery or too "hairy" to the touch.

For more detailed instructions, illustrations for left-handed knitters, and free knitting patterns to personalize your scarf, visit