Churchill is tops in ACT’s Top Girls

Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin) and Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams) recount their life stories at a dinner party in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at ACT’s Geary Theater through Oct. 13. Below: Marlene (Michelle Beck), right, interviews Jeanine (Lin). Photos by Kevin Berne

The mind of Caryl Churchill is an extraordinary place to spend an evening. Happily, this theater season, the Bay Area will see an abundance of Churchill, beginning with American Conservatory Theater’s season-opening Top Girls from 1982. [Upcoming Churchill productions include Cloud 9 at Custom Made Theatre Company, Vinegar Tom from Shotgun Players and Escaped Alone from Magic Theatre.]

Churchill is one of theater’s most bracing, original and fascinating voices. At 81, she just premiered another boundary-pushing work, Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp., at London’s Royal Court, and she never seems to tire of experimenting with form. The one consistent from play to play is ferocious intelligence and curiosity and a mastery of the theatrical to both engage and entertain.

Top Girls is an interesting place to start the Bay Area’s informal Churchill festival. Nearly 40 years after its premiere, the play doesn’t feel dated, even though its time period is very much the big hair, neon colors, Maggie Thatcher world of 1980s London. In this exploration of feminism – specifically what it costs to be a woman, successful or not, in a man’s world – Churchill is in the world of fantasy, the confines of slick workplace ambitions and in the gritty, emotionally dense realm of family drama. She’s traversing, the past, present and future almost simultaneously, which is a dramatic feat to be savored.

The central character is Marlene (Michelle Beck), a committed career woman who has just landed a big promotion at Top Girls, a London employment agency. Act 1 begins with a celebration Marlene is throwing for herself in a posh restaurant’s private room (all shiny glass bricks and cool surfaces in Nina Ball’s set).

In this flight of fancy, Marelene hasn’t invited friends or family, she has invited women from history, some real, some fictional. For instance, there’s Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett) who successfully hid the fact that she was a woman in the 9th century and became pope until she rather accidentally gave birth during a procession. Then there’s Dull Gret (Summer Brown) a warrior figure from a Bruegel painting, and Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams), a character from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by way of Boccaccio. Among the most talkative at the table are Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), a concubine to the Japanese emperor, and explorer/author Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal).

TopGirls 2

Though there’s a lot of talking over one another like at any dinner party involving lots of wine, each character has a moment to reflect on sacrifices they made in whatever realm of life they were in, and those sacrifices often had specifically to do with their bodies, their children and their relationships with me. What Marlene gets out of this, or how she came to choose such an eclectic guest list, is never quite clear. But we’ll learn more about Marlene’s own sacrifices at attitudes toward those sacrifices as the play proceeds to jump back and forth in time.

Director Tamilla Woodard and her cast take a while to relax into the rhythms of the dinner party. Some actors struggle with accents and with being heard over the general din. Things become more assured as the play progresses. The workplace scenes have some nice crackle to them – one scene is especially sharp, with a long-time employee of a firm (McNeal) making a bold step to find a new gig after realizing she has sacrificed any semblance of a personal life for a company that doesn’t appreciate her.

The sheen of commerce vanishes in Ball’s set as we delve more deeply into Marlene’s personal life, and the details of lower-middle-class home come sharply into focus. This is where the play lives and where all its disparate parts coalesce. Beck’s performance as Marlene crystalizes with help from fine work by Nafeesa Monroe and Gabriella Momah.

It’s interesting to think about what changes Churchill might have made – if any – were she to write Top Girls today. Would women be more supportive of one another? Would the #MeToo movement bring a sense of power or just add layers of complication? It doesn’t really matter because Churchill’s play – like most insightful human dramas – has enough depth and ingenuity to address questions beyond its time. But does it have the answers? That’s more of an off-stage, real-world matter.

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls continues through Oct. 13 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Shout to the top with Shotgun’s Girls

Top Girls
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.Top Girls

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.

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

Fractured tales confound in ACT’s Love and Information

Love and Information 05 Print
Cindy Goldfield (left) and Dominique Salerno star in Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a collection of 57 scenes that challenge audiences to consider the fateful, intimate dance between the virtual and the real, and the ways we filter data in the Information Age. Below:Joel Bernard, Salerno and Christina Liang in a short scene of love, information or both. Photos by Kevin Berne

Confounding and captivating in equal measure, American Conservatory Theater’s debut production in the newly renovated Strand Theater certainly lives up to its title. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information sounds like a generic title for just about anything in our short-attention-span world, on or off line, and that seems to be part of the point.

More like a curated collection of scenes and short films than an actual play, Love and Information breaks down into 57 scenes (like Heinz, 57 varieties) for a total running time about about 100 minutes. There are 12 actors deftly assaying hundreds of characters (or sketches of characters, really), and the whole thing is slickly, fluidly directed by Casey Stangl.

Some scenes are more memorable than others – a man attempting to share mnemonic games with a woman is delightfully surreal (“the hedgehog is in the microwave”); a brother and sister redefine their relationship in a shocking way; a text battle between wife and philandering husband takes place under the surface of polite dinner conversation; a young woman describes to a friend what it’s like growing up unable to feel any pain at all; a grandmother attempts to teach a grandchild about fear; a man who experiments on chick brains regales a date with tales of decapitation and brain slicing. And the list does go on.

About half the scenes feel like they’re part of a bigger, more interesting play. The other half feels like filler.

Love and Information 12 Print

It’s all very proficiently done, and Stangl, working with scenic designer Robert Brill, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and projection designer Micah J. Stieglitz show off the Strand beautifully. The sound, the sight lines, the vibrancy of the room itself – it’s all thrilling and makes for an ideal second ACT stage.

What I didn’t get from the play was satisfaction. There isn’t much connective tissue here, and that seems to be part of the point. We’re fragmented, we’re chaotic, we’re filtered. Technology has increased our options for communications but has done the quality of communication no favors. That comes through here, but what I missed (after hitting the wall at about the one-hour mark) is that moment when it all comes together, when the fragments coalesce into something bigger and more meaningful. And though the end incorporates an appealing slice of Electric Light Orchestra, I never felt the whole became more than the sum of its attractive, often intriguing parts.

Maybe that’s what Churchill is after here: there is no sum game anymore. It’s all just parts. Maybe so. But as long as those parts keep coming on the stage of the Strand, I’m happy. San Francisco’s newest theater should be its most active and alive for many years to come.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Love and Information director Casey Stengl about her work on the play for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information continues through Aug. 9 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit