By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
K. Todd Freeman, 38, and David Rainey, 44, starring in Topdog/Underdog at the Dallas Theater Center through March 21, have been playing the roles of brothers Booth and Lincoln since early last fall. Their performances drew raves from critics in Chicago and Houston, where both actors are company members at the Alley Theatre. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks earned the 2002 Pulitzer for drama for this dynamic two-hander about down-and-out men living on the edge of madness in one small room. Lincoln's a card sharp. Booth's a two-bit shoplifter who'd like to learn Lincoln's foolproof three-card monte moves. The play requires the actors to scream, fight, eat Chinese food, masturbate, pee in a glass, laugh hysterically, re-enact the assassination of Abe Lincoln and cry like wounded animals. One of the characters ends up dead. Oh, and the script uses Ms. Parks' nontraditional spellings and unpredictable punctuation. Typical line: "Ima show you thuh cards: 2 blk cards but only one heart."
Suzan-Lori Parks' script looks like shorthand. Was it difficult to learn?
Rainey:She writes in a vernacular that I kind of understand. She takes shortcuts in language. So much of the text indicates the rhythm, the pacing, the timing. It's really like Shakespeare.
Freeman:In Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, each character comes alive in the way they speak. [The Topdog/Underdog script] is not so different. It instantly told me who these guys were.
There's a lot of repetition in this play. Ever get lost in a performance and wonder if you've already said that line?
Rainey:A couple of times I've found myself out there, wondering if I'd said something already. But if you do that, if you fall onstage, you make it look like it's supposed to happen. You just pick it up and keep going.
Do any improvising to keep the performances fresh?
Rainey:No. We try to do the play word for word every time.
Freeman:That's what's great about [Parks'] vernacular. It makes the audience think they're just two men talking. You're successful at it when the audience thinks you're just talking.
What's the art to playing brothers?
Freeman:Chemistry. I'm always glad when people say, "You guys seem like you're really brothers." We do have a certain chemistry. And we try to keep it honest.
Rainey: A lot of this play's beauty is in how well [Parks] has written the conflict. It's a tug of war between the brothers. These are two men who have nowhere else to go. They only have each other in the whole world. They hate the fact that they're chained to one another. In playing any kind of sibling relationship, somebody has to take the lead. I've tried to pick up some of [Freeman's] "-isms" to make us more believable.
Has the play changed in the moves from Chicago to Houston to Dallas?
Freeman: It's gotten deeper.
Rainey: This is not a play you could ever get bored with. It operates on so many levels. I am constantly learning new things about this play. In Houston, I finally discovered how much love there is between the brothers.
Some patrons at DTC have walked out of the play saying they're offended by the language and sexual content. That means you're doing your jobs right, right?
Freeman: I heard that one woman left because she said she felt like a voyeur watching this play. That's a compliment. That's how you should feel.
Rainey: I looked down at the front row during a performance one night and saw a woman pull her dress down over her knees. She was threatened by the character of Lincoln. Afraid of him. She didn't want him looking at her. I've run into people on the street, couples, and the man will look me in the eye and say "Loved your performance, man!" and the woman will look down at the sidewalk like she's afraid of me. That's the power of these characters.
You had to become proficient three-card monte throwers. Ever try it for real out on the street?
Freeman: We learned it from a video we ordered off the Internet. He had to study it more than I did because my character, Booth, is not supposed to be that good at it.
Rainey:No, I never tried for real on anybody. The last thing I need in researching any character is to get arrested.
Here's something to make you squirm on your inflatable doughnut cushion: the idea of a hemorrhoid ointment commercial backed by Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." As painfully accurate as that song choice might be, we agree with the Cash family's refusal of the "moronic tie-in," as bluntly expressed by Rosanne Cash. But, hey, pharmaceutical companies, don't hang your heads in despair. Surely, there are some songsters out there who wouldn't mind a little extra moolah. We suggest the following as theme songs for various ills and discomforts.
Alzheimer's: "I Keep Forgettin'" (Michael McDonald)
Constipation: "The Waiting" (Tom Petty)
Diarrhea: "Let the River Run" (Carly Simon)
Eczema/Psoriasis: "Cure for the Itch" (Linkin Park)
Erectile dysfunction: "Rocket Man" (Elton John)