A look back at the past that contains a look back at the distant past, Top Girls comes across as almost more of a recently-written period play than the 1982 piece that it is. That is a credit to playwright Caryl Churchill’s balanced eye, which captures the tone of the era in which she wrote it without succumbing to its excesses. It also speaks to the deliberate intelligence that illuminates the production under director Amber Paige McGinnis – every element, whether from the 1980s or the 1200s, says something about where women find themselves today.
We might ask, as the main question out of many raised by the play, how much has changed and how much of the change is good. In the play’s opening dinner party, we’re invited to compare the new promotion of 80’s British corporate headhunter Marlene (Karina Hilleard) to the lives and careers of her guests – five historical and mythical personages. All of them – hell-pillaging legend Dull Gret (Caroline Dubberly), concubine-turned-monk Lady Nijo (Alexandra Maria Palting), world-tromping Isabella Bird (Susan Marie Rhea), obedient Chaucerian wife Patient Griselda (Amanda Forstrom), and gender-disguised Pope Joan (Jessica Lefkow) – made sacrifices. All of their sacrifices make different sorts of sense within the context of their historical eras, and each questions the worth of each other’s sacrifices. Notably, all of their sacrifices have something to do with their children or lack of children.
This includes Marlene whom, we learn, has a particular relationship with her sister’s child, Angie (Dubberly). Angie, age sixteen, still sucks her thumb and plays with younger children and utterly worships the independent Marlene. In Dubberly’s portrayal, she is simultaneously fierce and desperate. Marlene’s sister Joyce (Rhea), by contrast, is resigned and harsh. Marlene tells off the whining wife of the man who was passed over for Marlene’s promotion; when Joyce’s husband runs off to America, Joyce seemingly accepts it.
Contradictions build up like mirror reflections within mirrors. Marlene’s coworkers (Palting and Forstrom) pass quick – and often hilarious – judgment on the women they are tasked with finding jobs for in their employment agency Top Girls. We are inclined to side with the job-seeker, and then with the recruiter, and then back and then forth. When Marlene visits Angie and Joyce in the working-class English countryside, we see Marlene’s side of the argument on running off from her unkind parents, and Joyce’s side on standing by them; Marlene’s side on Angie’s future prospects, and Joyce’s; Marlene’s side on Thatcher and conservatism, and Joyce’s. Never does one side seem without a price, never does one character take a position out of character for her, and never do any of the actors comment on their character’s stance.
closes December 2, 2017
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It’s much funnier, sadder, and provocative, seeing people who are fully themselves hitting their heads and hearts against each other, than it would be if Churchill or McGinnis insisted on a definitive message. As soon as you might decide that the story wants you to think that a woman like Marlene, adopting the power-suit attitude of an 80s businessman, is an unfortunate thing, a new resonance strikes, and you have to wonder whether our modern lean-in trope is a step forward, or backward, or simply sideways.
Every production element follows this commitment to bold individuality, from the metropolitan cubism of Matthew J. Keenan’s fascinating set to the emotion-punching lighting of Laura Eckelman. Costume designer Alison Samantha Johnson and hair/makeup designer Craig Miller deserve maximal praise for the instantly memorable colors and shapes the characters wear, perhaps best exemplified in the transformation Forstrom undergoes between her fairy-tale Patient Griselda and her confrontationally colorful 80s businesswoman. Each character is as ethically defined by their appearance choices as by their words.
Top Girls is not an easy play to stage, between the overlapping conversations, sudden shifts into new characters with every new scene, and wildly contrasting opinions on such matters as the proper way for a medieval woman to surrender her infant. McGinnis and her unflagging ensemble make cracking open the Pandora’s Box of Churchill’s masterwork look easy.
Top Girls by Caryl Churchill . Directed by Amber Paige McGinnis . Featuring Caroline Dubberly, Amanda Forstrom, Karina Hilleard, Jessica Lefkow, Alexandra Maria Palting, Daven Ralston, Susan Marie Rhea . Assistant Director/Dialect Coach/Understudy: Madeline Mooney . Stage Manager: Allison Poms . Assistant Stage Manager: Ilyana Rose-Davila . Set Designer: Matthew J. Keenan . Lighting Designer: Laura Eckelman . Sound Designers: Justin Schmitz & Gordon Mimmo-Smith . Costume Designer: Alison Samantha Johnson . Properties Designer: Cindy Landrum Jacobs . Hair and Makeup Designer: Craig Miller . Dramaturg: Clarke Whitehead . Produced by Keegan Theatre Company . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.