Half of MET’s production of Top Girls is a nightmare staged like a dream; the other is a dream staged, if not so badly as a nightmare, then at least as a bit of a mess. The famous first portion, a dinner party involving historical and fictional women interacting with modern power-executive Marlene, ends up frustratingly out of MET’s reach; the more traditional second section, by contrast, they knock out of the park.
Caryl Churchill’s 1982 smash hit is a strange, challenging, and very 1980s exploration of the roles of women in Britain’s Thatcher years. Watching it is a different experience now than it was even a year ago, considering the Thatcher-scale political turnover still going on in our own country. Marlene may throw herself a fantastical dinner party to celebrate her hard-won right to climb the corporate ladder, but the world around her is not as simple as pure victory in Churchill’s reckoning. It is in its complexities that the play reflects darkly on our own times.
The five women Marlene invites to her dreamlike dinner all play around the ideas of success and female identity. There are real-life personages – Isabella Bird, a Victorian traveler, and Lady Nijo, a 13th-century Japanese concubine, Buddhist nun, and memoirist. There are fictional characters – Dull Gret, the hell-storming medieval subject of a painting by Brueghel, and Patient Griselda, the peasant wife of a nobleman whose story appeared in Chaucer. And there is Pope Joan, the woman who briefly attained the pontificate (considered a myth by most modern historians).
The conversation these women weave is a kind of symphony. They talk over each other, under each other, across each other; they laugh, argue, cry, and pray. In some ways it is a hyperrealistic recreation of the serpentine flows of conversation; in others, it is highly artificial. To play this scene on stage without leaving the audience hopelessly confused and unable to follow requires a strong hand and an almost psychic cooperation between the actors. The cast, under Suzanne Beal’s otherwise sensitive direction, gets most of the way there.
I do not believe Churchill intends us to hear every word or follow every setup and punchline; but the party must be conducted precisely. Certainly, the actors will gain better rapport as the production goes on, but some of the underlying rhythms are disjointed, and anyone going to see this show must expect to miss a few of the major points and stories. The problem begins with Beal’s decision to move a scene Churchill wrote in the second act back to the beginning of the play, before the party, starting us out on the wrong note.
Ultimately, however, the dinner party is only a sort of background music for the second act’s main plot. It establishes themes and counter-themes that will resonate throughout the story of Marlene (Gené Fouché) and her niece, Angie (Karli Cole). Angie is a troubled 16-year-old – she hangs out with a 12-year old neighbor for lack of being able to relate to kids her own age. Marlene and her estranged sister (Julie Herber) wrestle with the question of just how nightmarish the dawning Thatcher era will be for poor Angie.
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The story here is well-staged, well-played, very funny and moving. Fouché’s portrayal of Marlene allows the faintest slivers of doubt to peek out from behind the mask of her clever, confident Modern 80’s Woman. Cole creates a wonderful mess of a character with her Angie, rousing a deep concern for how she will fare in the harsh adult world. As all the cast besides Fouché do, Cole doubles, playing Pope Joan; her voice is sadly not as strong in that role. Herber is stunningly human as Marlene’s sister, and both witty and prim as Isabella Bird.
The ensemble overall switches ably between the dinner party characters and the modern ones. They play the handful of job-interview scenes Churchill provides them to hilarious and upsetting ends.
Beal moves the cast smoothly about Cody Gilliam’s highly adaptable set during the second act, in contrast to the relatively static dinner party scene. The sure footing and near-perfect acting in that half makes it clear: the extreme challenge of Churchill’s dinner party script is largely to blame for the discordant first half, and not any lack of skill on the artists’ part. There are still plenty of pleasures to be found in the dinner party– I do not want to make it sound unwatchable. It is like a Beethoven opus performed with instruments ever so slightly out of tune and at inconsistent volumes – you still get the main impact of the music. And the beautifully dark second act makes up for the deficiencies, leaving a good echo in your ears.
Top Girls by Caryl Churchill . Directed by Suzanne Beal . Featuring Karli Cole, Surasree Das, Gené Fouché, Julie Herber, Katie Hileman, Emily Raines, Katie Rattigan . Stage Manager: Em Perper . Set Designer: Cody Gilliam . Costume Designer: Jennifer Adams . Sound Designer: Lauren Johnson . Lighting Designer: Tabetha White . Props Master: Jeanine Evans . Dramaturg: David Allerton . Produced by Maryland Ensemble Theater . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.