Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Invictus Theatre Company
Review by Christine Malcom

Also see Karen's recent reviews of The Band's Visit, Girl from the North Country and Waiting for Lefty and Christine's recent review of Antigone

Mikha’el Amin and DeMorris Burrows
Photo by Through Line Studios
In its new, much larger home at the Windy City Playhouse, Invictus Theatre Company loses none of the company's trademark intimacy or power with its production of Suzan Lori-Parks's Pulitzer Prize–winning play Topdog/Underdog, directed by Aaron Reese Boseman. The show is intense, grueling, and hilarious by turns, fueled by the two leads' performances, which are remarkable both individually and in terms of the collaboration they establish.

The story centers around brothers Lincoln and Booth, so named as a joke by the father who walked out on them at ages sixteen and eleven, respectively, at some indeterminate remove from their mother's abandonment of the family. Deeply scarred not just by being left to fend for themselves, but by the poverty and violence that fed the dysfunction, the brothers share Booth's squalid, run-down SRO.

They scrape by on Booth's talent for petty theft and the meager pay Lincoln brings home from his job at an arcade where he plays his namesake, complete with whiteface, for patrons who pay to shoot at the doomed president. But Booth dreams of, among other things, reviving the long-running, highly successful three-card monte operation that Lincoln abandoned for "honest" work after one of his crew was shot and killed by a disgruntled mark.

Over the course of a little more than two hours, the two rehash Lincoln's failed marriage, the betrayals within betrayals that hollowed out their family and left the two of them clinging to one another even as they hurtle toward mutual destruction. Money, masculinity, ambition, yearning, and devotion swirl together in something that turns out to be a grand, brutal tragedy and a mundane slice of life.

As always, Invictus is fortunate in Kevin Rolfs' scenic design. Rolfs creates a space that is at once cavernous and claustrophobic, tearing the stage right wall next to the SRO's entrance down to its studs and fronting it with a grotesque set piece that looks as if it might be a urinal or prison sink. Booth's single bed is set on a platform, supported on visible milk crates, a few inches above the "living room," with its moldering recliner (which doubles as Lincoln's "bed"), a mix of more plastic milk crates and a few older wooden crates, Lincoln's guitar, and miscellaneous luggage he appears to be living out of.

The upstage wall features two filthy windows and a shallow closet between the bed and the door. This wall is covered with textured burgundy wallpaper, torn and peeling, that suggests ancient opulence. This is mirrored by what initially seem a slightly curious detail: swagged burgundy velvet fronting a platform that is less than a foot high. This is accompanied by functional elements that mimic old-school theatrical footlights.

Taken as a whole, the set supports the play's resistance to being pinned down to any specific time period. The offbeat theatrical details, the mix of old and new materials, and the suggestion of both a chaotic boyhood bedroom and the final stop on the downward spiral into damnation, demand that the audience recognize this tragedy as one with as much import and timeless significance as Sophocles or Shakespeare.

Marquecia Jordan's costumes mirror these smart, precise choices. In the early scenes, Booth in his jeans and tank top looks simultaneously dangerous and vulnerable, whereas the brothers look prepared to preside over any club, anywhere, anytime in their stolen suits. Likewise, Brandon Wardell's lighting relentlessly refuses to locate the action at any particular time of day or year, and Petter Wahlbäck's sound design never intrudes, but also never lets the audience rest.

It's hard to know here where the talent of the performers ends and the skill of Aaron Reese Boseman's direction begins, but really, who cares? Parks's text is full of dialogue and scenes repeating, but not actually repeating at all. They build and cast glances backward and peer into the future, only incidentally using the same words and actions.

As Booth, DeMorris Burrows has a desperate, captivating energy. As horrifying as the details of his history–and ultimately his own actions–are, Burrows makes the audience want to weep for the boy he was never allowed to be and the man that history and circumstances will never allow him to become.

As Lincoln, Mikha'el Amin exudes weariness, yet as he sits, half-asleep and composing something simple and true on his guitar, he conjures up for the audience the latent charisma that at one time drew the world to him.

Neither performance could exist, let alone succeed, without the other, and regardless of the obvious talent of the two actors, one senses how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to reach the level of trust necessary to make the play work without strong direction.

Topdog/Underdog runs through March 31, 2024, presented by Invictus Theatre Company at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit