If theatre were judged like diving with a degree of difficulty factor, a play by British playwright Caryl Churchill would be akin to a reverse twisting three-and-a-half summersault dive. Therefore, the fact that Lumina Studio Theatre would even take on two such challenging works with a cast featuring several young actors is cause for applause. The fact that the production mostly nailed the two works is even more surprising.
Caryl Churchill is one of the world’s most acclaimed playwrights. She has advanced theatre immeasurably due to the quality of her dialogue, her willingness to take on themes involving feminism and the abuse of power, and her imaginative use of non-naturalistic techniques. One of her most renowned works is Top Girls, which was a first act dinner party with a cast of women from across history and literature.
Marlene (Olivia Solomon) hosts dinner party in which the characters often use overlapping dialogue while fighting to tell their own stories (think David Mamet with less aggression). The early part of the scene is dominated by Isabella Bird (Clare Lefebure), a Scottish clergyman’s daughter who has difficulty dealing with love and suffering people, and Lady Nijo (Kiva Brick), a Japanese woman raised to be a courtesan to the Emperor who later faced personal and religious challenges. Both Lefebure and Brick skillfully embody sharply defined characters while effortlessly handling the smart and clever dialogue.
The most powerful story comes from Pope Joan (Copeland Smith), a fabled woman who allegedly headed the Roman Catholic Church for a few years in the Middle Ages while disguised as a man. She tells of how her secret life was undone by pregnancy. Griselda (Laura Kennedy-Long) is a Chaucer character also had her own problems with love and pregnancy.
Some relief from the seriousness of the stories is provided by a crude, armor-wearing woman armored named Gret (Natalie Behrends, who shows excellent comedic skills with only a few lines) before this character also reveals more about her life.
Top Girls outlines the personal consequences suffered by women seeking to achieve success. The fanciful first act of Top Girls is normally followed by a second act that is highlighted by an argument between the career-driven Marlene and her sister Joyce over what personal success means and that also involves the fate of a young woman named Angie. In addition to its feminist themes, it is a brilliant polemic against the capitalism associated with the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Director David Minton’s decision to pair the first act of Top Girls with Caryl Churchill’s Fen is an inspired thematic and dramatic choice. The broader approach of the dinner party in Top Girls blends nicely with the larger portrait of several suffering female farm workers in Fen. And the fantastical elements of Top Girls blend nicely with certain elements of Fen, (such as an introduction by a distant Japanese landlord in a strong monologue by Sam Dembling) and supernatural elements at the end of the play.
Fen (the term refers a boggy marsh region in eastern England) is set in modern times, but the women who work in the potato fields have lives little better than those of medieval serfs. They find different ways of escaping from the difficult and tedious work.
The most central character is a young woman named Val (Zoe DeGrazia) who leaves her husband and two children in pursuit of happiness with her lover Frank (Aaron Posner). This move precipitates a downward emotional spiral of torment that is portrayed in heartbreaking fashion in an outstanding performance by DeGrazia.
Val’s mother May (Copeland Smith) retreats into domestic life, staying distant from her husband. The only outspoken woman is the rebellious Nell (another sharp performance by Clare Lefebure), who questions the unfairness of the system that keeps the farm workers poor and, probably as a result, is accused of being a hermaphrodite. Angela (in an effectively brutal portrayal by Natalie Behrends) takes out her pain over an absent husband by tormenting her sensitive stepdaughter Becky (Molly Beckett, equally effective in her part of this dysfunctional family relationship).
Fen is a difficult work to present because of the emotional complexities of each of the characters, many of whom are given only a minimal amount of stage time, and the need to handle Churchill’s smart but precise dialogue effectively. Director Minton’s talented ensemble effectively lives up to the challenge, a serious accomplishment given the youth of many members of the cast. Fen, normally a downbeat and depressing work, benefits from the pairing with the livelier first act of Top Girls.
It is a bittersweet experience to read a review of a fine production after it has closed, but Top Girls and Fen only ran for one weekend. The important takeaway from this review, however, should be the appreciation for the work of Lumina Studio Theatre. This reviewer has had little contact with their past work (mostly due to geographic reasons), but will be eagerly anticipating their future productions.
This production from Lumina Studios closed Sunday, March 23, 2014.
Top Girls + Fen both written by Caryl Churchill . Directed by David Minton . Produced by Lumina Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight.