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Topdog/Underdog

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Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks had previous works, such as The Sinner's Place (1984), In the Blood (1999), and Venus (1999), before she struck it gold, in this case the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002 with "TopDog/Underdog," the story about two brothers trying to survive the circumstances lives. When it ran off-Broadway in 2001, it starred actors Don Cheadle as Booth and Jeffery Wright as Lincoln. It would extend in 2002 when rapper/actor Mos Def took over Cheadle's role.

Stephen Rider plays younger brother Booth; he dubs himself 3-card, after the card game three-card monte. As the play opens, Booth practices his hustle in a shabby-looking one-room residence he shares with his older brother Lincoln (Jed Reynolds). The room looks like it needs a good cleaning with clothes and empty food boxes strewn about the furniture and floor. Booth comes out showing his skills as a master con. Lincoln comes in dressed like former president Abraham Lincoln in a stovepipe hat, a black coat with tails, and in whiteface. He is tired, he is hungry, he just wants to sit down with his "medicine" (a flask of bourbon) and forget what happened at work. Unfortunately, Booth wants his older brother to help him perfect 3-card monte and Linc, as he is called by Booth, doesn't want to hear it. Booth insists that Linc, "throw down the cards." Lincoln adamantly responds with, "I don't touch the cards anymore." However, Lincoln finally gives in to temptation and soon finds himself not only picking up the cards but realizes he hasn't lost his touch.

The brothers' relationship goes high and low at different times. One minute they reminisce about the good times of their past and the next, they each recall their recollection of when their parents left them as children. Booth was 11 and Lincoln was 16 when their parents left--the mother first and two years later their father left. It's this strain in their relationship that makes them react aggressively and sometimes violently toward each other. We learn that for his job at a run-down arcade as Lincoln he walks around all day as people shoot him and he falls. He hates the job but reminds himself "it comes with benefits." They are each other's shoulder to lean on but have some resentments in their relationship.

Rider is masterful in his role. He's the younger brother with dreams of making it big. He believes that he will reach his dreams of wealth with the cards. He walks tall with a confident swagger all his own, head up, and a bravado that speaks volumes as he sizes up adversaries. As easily he gets mad and yells at his brother, Booth can just as easily become vulnerable and teary-eyed when the subject of his parents comes up. Rider's ability to flow from harsh to heartbroken is a marvel to watch.

Reynolds is simply amazing as the divorced, down-trodden older brother with an impressive name but distressing life. Reynolds is the progeny of two fantastic actors, renowned actress and 2008 Woman of the year Lissa Reynolds and James Reynolds from the popular daytime drama Days of Our Lives. So it's easy to see where he gets those acting genes. As Lincoln, he knows his job is a joke. "I'm a brotha playing Lincoln," Reynolds says ironically to Booth.

Parks has proven again how invaluable her work has become. She seems to follow in the footsteps of the late August Wilson. While her words deeply touch the heart, it's Rider and Reynolds that bring it home. Their laughter, anger, and need to reconnect resonates with audience members. Their powerful performances are worth watching and learning from. Aspiring actors may see them as the future of theater.

"Topdog/Underdog" runs Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3p.m. until Saturday, September 18 at Fremont Centre Theatre located at 1000 Fremont Avenue, at El Centro, in South Pasadena. For ticket information call (866) 811-4111 or reserve online at www.fremontcentretheatre.com

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.