Play: Top Girls
Group: Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
Venue: The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive
Dates: Run concluded
Story: Caryl Churchill’s provocative drama focuses on Marlene, a career woman who has just achieved a significant promotion at the Top Girls employment agency in London. Marlene celebrates her advancement in a night on the town with several historic female figures, including the legendary Pope Joan, who supposedly ruled the Roman Catholic Church briefly in the ninth century; Dull Gret, a major figure in a painting by 16th century artist Pieter Brueghel; Lady Nijo, a 13th century Japanese concubine who became a Buddhist nun; 19th century explorer and adventurer Isabella Bird; and Patient Griselda, a character from stories by Petrarch and, later, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
While Marlene toasts her good fortune with these early-day women, she gradually hears their various horrific tales of personal setbacks and tragedies in male-dominated societies. In Act II, Marlene’s own unhappy personal life is recounted in scenes with her mentally challenged and emotionally disturbed niece Angie and Marlene’s simple sister Joyce.
Highlights: Churchill’s taut drama is non-linear in style, highly philosophical in content and expertly written throughout. Emily Piro’s insightful direction of the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s production expertly captures the heart of Churchill’s masterpiece through spirited performances by all seven players.
It’s a long (2 hours 45 minutes) and challenging work, as Churchill blends the fanciful first act with the gritty realism of the second, and also jumps back and forth in time, with the play’s ultimate scene taking place a year before the penultimate one. It’s all well worth following, though, especially in a performance as finely modulated as this one by SATE.
Other Info: Rachel Tibbetts offers a fine contrast in Marlene, first showing us her raucous celebration with her band of historical women in Act I and her resultant, sobering realization of their immense personal sacrifices, then demonstrating Marlene’s self-centered drive for success by abandoning her poor and uneducated family back home. Johanna Elkana contrasts effectively with Tibbetts as her forlorn sister Joyce as well as the long-suffering Griselda. Piro does a lot with a little as the taciturn Dull Gret, ultimately erupting in a savage speech that conveys the fictional woman’s seething frustration.
Dianna Thomas excels as the banal Angie, exuding a creepy sense of terror in her expressions and mannerisms. Alexis Coleman is splendid as the lusty Pope Joan, Erin Roberts shines in her portrayals of Lady Nijo and Angie’s younger playmate, and Margeau Baue Steinau is in fine form as a gum-popping waitress and two middle-age women desperately searching for stability and their own brands of achievement.
Roberts’ costume design finely conveys the various eras represented, Kimberly Weller’s props add a sense of flair and Michael Perkins’ set design shrewdly utilizes a few tables and chairs most convincingly, complemented by Mark Pannebecker’s lighting and media work.
Top Girls, when done properly, is a treat for the mind and the senses, and given a rousing performance by the SATE ensemble.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.