Enter: a lively dinner party. Lots of crosstalk. Women in a startling array of historical costumes.
There’s Isabella Bird, a 19th-century globe-trotter and well-educated author. There’s Joan the Pope, a ninth-century intellectual who lived as a man and briefly became the pope. There’s Dull Gret, a sword-wielding peasant and army leader lifted from the Bruegel painting Dulle Griet. There’s Lady Nijo, a 13th-century Japanese concubine who became a wandering nun. There’s Patient Griselda from The Canterbury Tales, a peasant-turned-wife-of-a-marquis, forced to prove her loyalty again and again. And then there’s Marlene, the polished hostess and ultimate ’80s businesswoman, who has organized this gathering of powerful independent women to celebrate her recent promotion.
As the conversation volleys like an uneven tennis match, each woman argues the rightness of her actions and the normalcy of her isolation, pain or sacrifice. Even as she describes breaking free from the status quo, she justifies the behavior of others who beat, tortured or abused her.
You’re struck by the striving of individuals who cannot outpace the parameters of their time. Each woman is a bonsai tree, lovely but limited, unaware of the container controlling her growth. And you can’t help but wonder, as you shift in your seat, what invisible limits stifle you.
So begins Live Arts’ production of Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s award-winning 1982 play that examines women chasing success in a man’s world. Despite being written nearly 40 years ago, the show feels fresh and painfully relevant.
Through February 24
As the story moves from timeless dinner party to Top Girls, a job placement agency in 1982 London, we’re invited to peer through the glass of one specific fishbowl: the professional and personal life of “ball-breaker” Marlene, whose circles include a frustrated sister, rebellious niece and high-flying female co-workers.
In the Playbill, Assistant Director Kelli Shermeyer writes, “TOP GIRLS presents us with a network of women who must navigate their identities and desires through the mutually-reinforcing structures of misogyny and capitalism.”
From every angle in the show, women suffer and sabotage one another. Money and career stand in direct opposition to marriage and children. Women who chase personal freedom steal power from women who choose family values—and vice versa.
Unsurprisingly, resentment simmers between each rigidly defined social role. There’s a distinct lack of empathy between women of different generations, relentless measuring against personal standards and passing judgment on those who, circumstantially or preferentially, find themselves on varying paths.
Most disturbing, for me, is the creeping idea that individualism destroys humanity. In the world of Top Girls, sisterhood seems like a laughable concept. As a woman, you either embrace solidarity through second-class status, or you transcend by trampling your peers.
But Live Arts’ production (and Churchill’s fantastic script) gives viewers the chance to draw their own conclusions.
In a tight space transformed by clever set pieces and a delightful ’80s soundtrack, you witness the manifold ways women connect, clash and spar in their quest for a better life.
Under the talented direction of Betsy Rudelich Tucker, the cast of Top Girls does a remarkable job of bringing fierce women to life. Each character feels distinct and often multilayered, which is amazing considering every performer (aside from the show’s lead) does double or triple duty.
As Marlene, Claire Chandler is tremendous, facing slings and arrows and sharing her own hardened pronouncements with a red-lipped smile. Even when she breaks in the powerful third act, she lacks the softness associated with feminine sorrow despite her real-looking tears.
That same flinty foundation underpins all the women of Top Girls, excepting teenagers Angie and Kit. Angie especially, forcefully played by Jen Bottas, repeatedly wrestles her flashpoint emotions in hopes of winning her aunt’s affection. She’s furious one minute, fragile the next, and it’s painful to watch her clumsy attempts to don the straightjacket of a top girl persona.
Jess Kristensen captivates as the show’s lone romantic, while Gretchen York makes an enjoyable man-eater who knows how to hang with the boys.
Madison Weikle plays girls who are young and desperate to be taken seriously, and Barbara Roberts gets caught in a gap between generations. Kat Maybury gives us long-suffering matrons who offer gruff comic relief, conservative outrage or martyred resignation depending on the era.
Also, did I mention the costumes? Maybe I’m just an ’80s kid, but damn, I loved the looks by designer Sri Kodakalla.
Watching these women play a game with all the rules rigged against them, it seems no surprise they lash out in frustration and bitterness at one another.
What does it mean to become a “top girl” in a culture of misogyny? What does it take to support other women while jockeying toward success? Can you make space for nuance and personal freedom without sacrificing one another?
Live Arts’ Top Girls doesn’t give you the answers. It only asks the uncomfortable questions. But at a time like this, when cultural crosstalk abounds, you ought to go and listen.
See Top Girls at Live Arts now through February 24.