When director Kathi E.B. Ellis saw the original Broadway production of Topdog/Underdog, she knew she wanted to direct a production of Suzan-Lori Parks' searing comic drama about being black in America.
But it's a two-person play, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
"The actor who is playing Lincoln (Keith McGill), he and I have probably been looking at this show for eight years," Ellis says during a phone call from her home in Louisville. "But it was all about getting the right combination.
"When you're doing a two-person show, you've got to get the right combination of actors, because if they don't jell, nothing else is going to work."
The play, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama, focuses on two brothers, named Lincoln and Booth as a joke by their father. The brothers try to scrape out a living in New York through honest and criminal means but constantly run into obstacles. Lincoln has a ghoulish job, dressing as his presidential namesake in an arcade where customers may "shoot" him.
There are a couple Kentucky ties to the show. Parks is a native of Fort Knox, and the original off-Broadway and Broadway versions were directed by Frankfort native George C. Wolfe, who just scored his seventh Tony nomination for directing and 21st nomination overall for Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy.
The Kentucky connection made presenting the show in the Bluegrass State all the more important to Ellis. "I think Kentuckians should see a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by a Kentuckian," she says. But there was that matter of finding the right combination of performers to create the wide range of emotions the script demands, from brotherly love to the bitterest of rivalries.
Ellis and McGill thought they came close a few times with actors who eventually went on to other things before they could go into production.
So they waited.
"Even though I've wanted to do the show a long time, I didn't want to do it if I couldn't do it well, so it was a case of waiting for the right combination," Ellis said.
She finally found it last summer working on a production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest at Frankfort's Josephine Sculpture Park, where she will be directing As You Like It next month. It was her first time directing Brian Lee West, who played drunken jester Trinculo. McGill was Caliban, Prospero's rebellious slave.
"Halfway through the production, Keith and I were talking and said, we may have found Booth," Ellis says.
"Brian and Keith read the script in August, and it was like, 'OK, this is it,'" Ellis says. "The rest is history, and living history because we're doing the show in Lexington next week."
Their initial production of Topdog was at Louisville's Actor's Choice theater in January. On Monday and Tuesday, they're bringing the production to Balagula Theatre at Natasha's Bistro & Bar in Lexington, where Ellis has shown her mettle as the director of two-actor shows. She was the force behind Balagula's September 2011 production of the Chicago cop drama A Steady Rain.
"One of the important things about Balagula is they bring work that very few other Kentucky theater companies are doing, whether it's a classic or contemporary piece," Ellis says. "It's edgy, it's provocative, and it asks us to question who we are and what our place in the universe is, and they do it with passion and commitment.
"Every time I have worked with Balagula, they have been the kind of producing partners it's wonderful to work with because they're about the work and producing it in the best way possible."
And Topdog/Underdog will continue that tradition, she says, noting that after such a long journey to get the play produced, the Louisville crew is excited to have a chance to present the play again.
"Audiences black and white have responded to the power of the text, the relationship, everything that happens in the show," Ellis says. "This is a play that's so incredibly specific and yet so fundamentally universal. It has the potential for almost anybody who sees it to find something that resonates with them."
IF YOU GO
What: Actor's Choice production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, presented by Balagula Theatre.
When: 8 p.m. May 6 and 7
Where: Natasha's Bistro & Bar, 112 Esplanade
Tickets: $15, $10 students; available at (859) 259-2754 or Balagula.com.