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New Tricks for an Old Dog

Local acting favorite to cut his directing teeth on the prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog.”

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Wichmann, who is best known for dazzling comic performances in shows like “Fully Committed” and “Olympus on My Mind” at the Barksdale, doesn’t necessarily seem like a natural choice to direct this tricky comic drama. He’s white, and his only previous directing experience was a children’s touring show.

But Foster Solomon says Wichmann was one of the first people who came to mind to helm “Topdog.” Solomon brought the play to the attention of Theatre IV two years ago, and in addition to playing the role of Lincoln, he has taken a lead role in assembling the production’s creative team. “I knew that, regardless of race, Scott was a person who would understand this material as well as anyone,” he explains.

“I think there is a sense of humor that this thing has, an urban edge that I have a feeling for,” says Wichmann. He’s also a rap music fan, something that has proven invaluable as the production has evolved. According to Solomon, 1990s-era rap was the inspiration for many of the syncopated rhythms of the play’s language. And for the final part of the show’s Broadway run, rapper Mos Def played one of the roles.

“Suzan Lori-Parks wrote the play like a piece of music, — there are beats and rests and rhythm,” Wichmann says. “She’s written the dynamics in, so, in the rehearsals, sometimes we are just trying to find those rhythms.”

Wichmann adds directing to an already impressive and eclectic body of work. His first professional role of note in Richmond was as the Cowardly Lion in Theatre IV’s “Wizard of Oz” in 1999. Since then, he’s turned in one bravura performance after another, playing everything from Frank Sinatra in “Ella and Her Fella Frank” to the pointy-eared protagonist of “Batboy: The Musical.” A brilliant comedian and an excellent singer, Wichmann also seems to have a natural affinity for all aspects of theater; he began writing children’s plays in 2002 and recently completed a musical adaptation of “The Jungle Book.”

But as naturally talented as he might be, Wichmann still had a moment of panic after he agreed to direct “Topdog.” “At first I was like, ‘Oh God, I have to know the answer to every single question that an actor might bring up in rehearsal,’” he recalls. But in practice, Wichmann has established a collaborative creative environment: “When questions come up, I’ll say, ‘I’m not sure; let’s try a bunch of things and we’ll know when it works.”

He has been helped by a cast that brings years of professional experience to the production. Rodney Hobbs, a multitalented local veteran, will be playing Booth. Solomon is an accomplished director himself, having staged “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Barksdale last fall. Wichmann regularly solicits their input. “It’s not like too many cooks messing up the broth,” he says. “It’s more like we decide together who has the best recipe sometimes.”

Wichmann has been too engrossed in putting the production together to worry much about how the more shocking aspects of “Topdog” will be received. Dialogue laced with profanity might put off some folks, but more likely, it’s some of the skewed imagery that might be inflammatory. For instance, the character of Lincoln makes his living at a shooting gallery by dressing up as Abraham Lincoln and letting people shoot at him (using guns loaded with blanks).

“I haven’t really thought about whether people will be shocked or offended or appalled,” says Wichmann. “You get really close to the play when you’re rehearsing, so things don’t seem so extraordinary. It just becomes the reality of the characters.”

Wichmann has thought about at least one aspect of public perception, though. “I don’t want people to think ‘oh, that’s a black play,’ because it’s the story of two black men,” he says. “It’s a human story, a universal story and it’s such a good story. It transcends all that other crap.” S

“Topdog/Underdog” runs Feb. 26-March 14 at Theatre IV’s Little Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets cost $15, call 344-8040.

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