Thursday, September 26, 2019

"Top Girls"

Top Girls
Caryl Churchill

Rosie Hallett, Summer Brown, Michelle Beck, Monica Lin & Julia McNeal
It is 1982; and search-firm interviewer Marlene admires Britain’s Margaret Thatcher: “She’s a tough lady, Maggie; I’d give her a job.”  Marlene has toughed it out herself in the man’s world where she works and has just been named the new managing director of her firm.  To celebrate, she is hosting an exclusive dinner party at a local, upscale restaurant; and her guests are all women who have left their names engraved in the annals of history, fiction, or myth. 

This dream of an evening begins with each bragging about accomplishments that collectively stretch through the ages – a female-dressed-as-male pope from the ninth century; a world, adventure traveler from the staid Victorian Age; a peasant traveler from Chaucer’s Tales who married a nobleman; a woman warrior from a 1563, Pieter Bruegel painting who leads a charge on the demons of Hell; and a thirteenth-century girl who has the children of a Japanese emperor and later becomes a Buddhist nun.  But Marlene’s dream becomes a nightmare as each of the five, female guests begin to recount what their successes have cost them because they were women in a patriarchic-defined world, with their mounting, pent-up anger fueled by brandy leading to a mini-riot to end the dinner party.

With an opening scene that almost forty years later still feels current, bold, and extraordinary, Caryl Churchill’s 1982-premiering Top Girls opens in 2019 at American Conservatory Theater, raising many questions of just how much has actually changed for women in the workplace since the days of Thatcher (and Reagan).  With a cast of nine where Marlene and four others played by women of color, the accomplishments they earn, the prices they pay, and the doors shut on them take on much-added significance as we realize that whatever gains women have made these past four decades since the play’s debut (gains that still do not match where men are), many of those gains have not yet been afforded women of color at the same rate as white women. 

But that is just the first of many troubling questions without many easy answers that the ACT production poses in its Top Girls.  Michelle Beck boldly portrays Marlene, making evident a sense of her inner strength, determination, and willingness to disrupt the system.  Her Marlene has admirably broken the glass ceiling; but she appears to have done so by mimicking the ways the men around her have succeeded.  She is fiercely independent but also not particularly stepping forward to help the women around her also succeed.  Of those she interviews as part of her job, she sarcastically describes them as “half a dozen little girls and an arts graduate who cannot type.” 

Marlene has a sister and niece she has not seen in six years and, as we will discover, has neglected other family obligations in order to pursue her own life and career – much as the men around her have often done.  We are attracted to Marlene’s smart style and fearless manner.  We applaud when she says, “Piss off” to the wife of a white man who was passed over the promotion she got – a woman who insinuates by her looks and manners that Marlene got the job for reasons other than her competence.  But we cringe when we see Marlene time and again act in some of the worst ways the men of her world often act, with our left wondering if is there not some other way for women (and men) to forge a path to success in today’s business world rather than imitation of the male world’s worst aspects.

Michelle Beck & Gabrilella Momah
Our questions about Marlene grow larger when we contrast her with Angie, her teenage niece who is in many ways, yin to her yang.  Angie – brilliantly portrayed by Garbriella Momah – is a lot of what Marlene is not and never was: awkward in stance and speech, disheveled in appearance, emotionally underdeveloped for her age, and a school drop-out.  But there are also qualities the two share: a determined drive to escape their childhood home, a burning desire to be and do better than what life has seemingly dictated them, and a love-hate relationship with Joyce (Angie’s mom, Marlene’s sister).  

There is also a secret we learn that connects the two and explains the root of those similarities.  What it does not explain is Marlene’s assessment to an office mate that she does not believe Angie has what it takes to succeed; and with that casually said statement, she seemingly dismisses any hope for her niece’s future or any commitment to help her succeed.  For one more reason, Marlene is a dilemma and rich fodder for us as an audience to contemplate and debate the following day.

Caryl Churchill’s play goes from the opening dinner party to a scene introducing Angie and the antipathy she has for her life and her mom to a scene in the office the morning Marlene is announced as the new managing director finally to a scene one year prior when Marlene surprises Joyce in showing up in her kitchen on Angie’s birthday.  In each, the skins of the onion slowly unravel as we discover more of who Marlene really is while also getting to know this somewhat strange but intriguing girl, Angie. 

Nafessa Monroe & Michelle Beck
Central to both in both similar and different ways is Joyce, played by Nafeesa Monroe, who also plays through cunning double-casting, the silent but watching waitress in the opening act’s dinner party.  Joyce is viewed by Angie as thwarting her future because of her motherly restrictions on a restless teenager; the anger they both show to each other masks a love that peeks through to demonstrate its true core.  Joyce is strong, resolute, and confident of who she is in her own way and is in some respects a match and more for her fancy dressed, big-talking sister.  She is the stay-at-home mom that has borne a lot to be so and has been, as we learn, a sacrificing enabler of Marlene’s career in ways much like wives have been (and still are) of their husbands everywhere.  Her presence in this play and the strong performance of Nafeesa Moore adds more questions with no easy answers for us to ponder upon exit, with the play not pointing to how or if a successful business woman can be mother and boss at the same time.

Julia McNeal & Rose Hallett
Joining Marlene, Angie, and Joyce is an array of fantastically contrasting, double-role characters, all played masterfully by the rest of this cast.  Rosie Hallett is the royally robed Pope Joan whose incredible tale of being a woman posed as a man and rising up the ranks of the Church is still a story some historians believe about the actual, ninth-century Pope John VIII.  She is also the perfectly attired office interviewer, Win, who becomes the ‘mother-confessor’ of sorts of a woman in her mid-career, Louise (Julia McNeal), who is tired of staying in a job where she trains young men who get promoted over her and is ready to venture into some unknown position after twenty years for a chance of being recognized/rewarded for what she knows and can do. 

Rosie Hallett, Summer Brown, Julia McNeal, Monica Lin & Monique Hafen Adams
Julia McNeal is also the dinner guest, Isabella Bird, who defied all Victorian definitions of what a woman should do in order to travel the back roads and the mountaintops of the continents, even against all odds of her sex and a body riddled with physical issues.  Monica Lin is the talkative, excitable Lady Nijo – a thirteenth-century concubine of the Japanese emperor who does not question what she must do in her society in order to be successful; she is also Jeanine, a client looking for a new job full of travel and new sights/challenges.  Mrs. Kidd (Monique Hafen Adams), the wife who thinks her husband should be getting Marlene’s promotion, is also Patient Griselda, a fictional character who dutifully and without complaint goes through excruciating tests of her loyalty laid out by her husband.   Nell is a colleague of Marlene’s and also the fearless, chest-beating warrior, Dull Gret, who leads a war on Hell – the latter portrayed at the dinner party first hilariously and then with unbounded sorrow, anger, and fury by Summer Brown.  In each case of the five guests of her dream, aspects of Marlene can be quite easily depicted – aspects to be either admired or questioned, according to one’s perspective.

All of these women, past and present, have been colorfully and imaginatively attired through the artistic genius of Sarita Fellows.  Her women of the past are like those in storybooks on a coffee table while her women of the '80s are wonderful contrasts between those who are dressed to kill (in ways a man's world still wants its women) and those dressed just to exist day-by-day.

Tamilla Woodward directs with a flair that at times almost gets out-of-hand in its realism of a dinner party, an office full of chatter, or a family argument.  A number of times, women at the dinner party talk over each other with two or more conversations happening at once.  Sisters scream at each other simultaneously, making it impossible for either of them or us to hear/understand.  Yet in actuality, these same dynamics occur in all our everyday lives where deeply felt excitement or anger reign supreme and/or where egos are worn as crowns that declare, “Listen to me and my story ... now!”  In this respect, the director’s choices are brilliant even if the delivery is sometimes difficult to comprehend.

Nina Ball once again creates her own interpretation of a storyline through her insightful set designs.  A heavy-looking glass wall that arches out from the back stage reminds us of that ceiling the women at the dinner party have each broken in their own ways, in their own time periods, with Marlene being the last to shatter it.  The pristine, brightly lit (via Barbara Samuels’ design) office setting where desks are all together in one room makes us want to see that corner office where Marlene will move the next day.  The glass wall breaks open to reveal a cluttered home packed with reminders of the confined lifetime of Joyce – a home that seems particularly small, crowded, and plain when sister Marlene arrives.

I must admit that one day later, I like Top Girls much more than I did while watching it.  What was sometimes confusing last evening begins to fit together today upon reflection.  What was frustrating by the portrayals of Marlene, Angie, and Joyce today leads to questions and comparisons of how women and girls – especially those of color – are still viewed and treated from school age onward – both those considered ‘successful’ and those deemed not now and never will be.  American Conservatory Theater stages a play some might see as dated to prove that Top Girls is perhaps more timely than ever.

Rating: 4.5 E

Top Girls continues through October 13, 2019 at American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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