The cast of Shotgun Players’ Top Girls by Caryl Churchill includes (from left) Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Pope Joan, Kendra Lee Oberhauser as Marlene, Aily Roper as Waitress, Karen Offereins as Lady Nijo, Danielle Cain as Isabella Bird, and Rosie Hallett as Dull Gret. Below: Mbele-Mbong as Nell, Jessma Evans as Win and Oberhauser as Marlene. Photos by Pak Han
Would that Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls was something of a dated relic in its details of the horrors, tribulations, indignities and injustices suffered by women through the ages. Things may have changed in the 33 years since the play’s London debut in the era of Margaret Thatcher, but they haven’t changed enough. The play, now being given a sterling production by Shotgun Players feels deeper and more relevant than ever.
It’s fascinating to see Top Girls in such close proximity to a much more recent Churchill play, Love and Information (an American Conservatory Theater production at the Strand Theater through Aug. 9 – read the review here). Both plays demonstrate Churchill’s non-traditional approach to theatrical storytelling and her enthusiasm for experimentation with form. In the newer play, she’s reflecting our collective ADHD back to us with the chill of isolation in a “connected” digital age. And in Top Girls, she plays with time, fantasy, politics, feminism, history and family in the most fascinating way.
The play begins in glorious fantasia as Marlene (Kendra Lee Oberhauser throws a dinner party for herself in celebration of her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency (oh, the cringeworthy-ness of that name). She has invited to her party an assortment of fascinating women from history. It’s not the expected Joan of Arc, Mata Hari, Cleopatra crowd but rather a much more intriguing collection that includes Pope Joan (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) of medieval legend who purportedly reigned as Pope in drag in the 9th century before being stoned to death after giving birth during a papal procession. There’s also Victorian-era author/traveler Isabella Bird (Danielle Cain), Japanese concubine turned Buddhist nun Lady Nijo (Karen Offereins) and Chaucerian muse Patient Griselda (Jessma Evans). Grunting and eating at the end of the table is Dull Gret (Rosie Hallett), a peasant woman painted by Bruegel who headed up a party to pillage hell.
As the women drink wine and talk over one another, their stories begin to emerge, stories about children being taken from them, sexual violation, sacrifices on the way to successful careers and all sorts of fascinating details and reactions to the other women’s stories. Director Delia MacDougall pulls us gently into the richness of this long scene, and by the end, we’re fully immersed and reveling in Churchill’s writing and her actors’ performances.
With the help of Erik Flatmo’s sleek, efficient set, Act 2 shifts to the workaday world of the early ’80s as we see what life is like for Marlene and her co-workers at Top Girls. Candidates for jobs are interviewed and instructed not to mention a word about wanting to get married, let alone the desire to start a family. No good job can come in the wake of such admissions. Churchill also takes us into rural England to meet Angie (an affecting Hallett), Marlene’s 16-year-old niece, who is a tough, forceful kid, possibly developmentally disabled. Her best friend is 12-year-old Kit (Aily Kei Roper) from the neighborhood, and their scene together is as fascinating as it is disturbing. Angie is openly hostile to her mother (Cain) and even expresses a wish to kill her.
Worlds collide when Angie runs away from home and shows up at her Aunt Marlene’s office just in time to see Marlene challenged by the wife of a co-worker who is angry that Marlene got the promotion over her husband. There’s a soap opera drama element at work here, but Churchill is careful to underscore every scene with issues of women working for or against each other in a world where success is defined by the long established patriarchy.
In Act 3, Churchill goes back in time one year to a rare visit by Marlene – successful city lady – to her niece and sister, an embittered woman at odds with just about everything Marlene stands for. Echoes of that first dinner scene reverberate through the entire play, and it all comes crashing together in this final scene.
Top Girls is Churchill at her best, which is really saying something, and this Shotgun production allows us to fully revel in the complexity and brilliance of her vision.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls continues in a Shotgun Players production through Aug. 2 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $5-$25. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.