British playwright Caryl Churchill comes to the stage with fiercely held positions, but she makes her case through surprise and indirection. She seeks to disorient you so you will look anew at what she has dramatized. No character propagandizes coarsely for a thesis in a long speech, as you get in the later David Mamet plays. Not for her is there the device of the clever, admirable minor character, favored by George Bernard Shaw and August Wilson, who gets in digs on behalf of the author.
With the non-linear structure of Top Girls, the current production from the Syracuse University Drama Department, where scenes do not have immediate relationship with one another, inattentive audience members may feel they have been excluded from the joke. Until you get to the final scene and Churchill’s truth punches you in the nose. Once the whole thing (three acts, running two hours and 40 minutes) is in your head, you realize Top Girls is not obscure at all, and Churchill’s cat-and-mouse game with the narrative is only a lure—as well as an opportunity for student actresses to show off their versatility.
First-time director Timothy Davis-Reed tries to help the audience discover what’s happening on its own. He projects black-and-white images of Margaret Thatcher in her prime, circa 1982, the year Top Girls premiered, along with voice-overs of her plummy, hyper-self-confident voice. We all know since The Iron Lady movie that Churchill evidently knew then, that Thatcher’s upper-class accent was fake and that in childhood she spoke like a girl who had grown up over a grocery store. Beyond that, of course, Thatcher was an embarrassment to feminism, a woman more heartless toward human suffering than the male prime ministers who came before her.
Enter Marlene (Mary Ann Pianka), a successful executive in Thatcher’s Great Britain. She’s throwing a dinner party to celebrate her promotion at an employment agency where she works and waiting for five peers to arrive. Each enters in costume because the women, the Top Girls, are either fictional, historical or mythical. They are not the usual suspects one might expect, such as Catherine the Great or the Queen of Sheba. Instead they are five women whose “success” stories suit Churchill’s needs.
The intrepid Victorian explorer Isabella Bird (Alyssa Costellano) boasts that she secured her independence by shifting family responsibilities to a sister who stayed home. As for the maternal instinct, Isabella allows, “I didn’t have any children—I was very fond of horses.”
Lady Nijo (Sumiko Cohen) of 13th-century Japan began her rise to power as a royal concubine by sleeping with the aging emperor when she was 14, telling that she was honored to be chosen. Pope Joan (Emily Zinski) became the pre-eminent voice in Christendom (“I did not have to obey: People obeyed me”) by impersonating a man until an unwanted pregnancy undid the imposture.
Hulking Dull Gret (Jenna Fields) was painted by Pieter Breughel as a harrower of hell. By using the tools of masculine aggression, chain mail and sword, Gret led a horde of peasants to attack the devil himself. She’s no fun at the party, though, as she speaks only in one-syllable obscenities and steals plates when no one is looking.
Last to arrive is Patient Griselda (Whitney Crowder), an icon of virtue of medieval Europe, celebrated by Boccaccio and Chaucer. She obediently surrendered her two children to her husband, the august Marquis, who takes them out of her sight to be killed.
The ensemble, interrupted by an impertinent waitress (Raven Gabrielle Perez), does not forge a sisterhood. Instead the guests are rude to one another, interrupting while another is talking, second-guessing each other’s choices, generally making bad company. Marlene seems unaware of what we see and instead revels that her promotion has put her among the select. While the celebrity dinner is the best-known portion of Top Girls, and the most often photographed, it seems unrelated to the reaming two acts of the play, set in Marlene’s agency, called “Top Girls,” or in an East Suffolk home, all realistic with no fantasy characters.
Thematically, however, it relates deeply to the rest of the play, and not just because the performers, plus an eighth, the na´ve job-seeker Jeanine (Chessie Santoro), appear in different costumes and wigs with contrasting accents. It is a criticism of some strands of feminism and a cautionary tale. “Success” for women comes at high personal cost and is of ambiguous value if it benefits only a single person.
The remainder of Top Girls could be seen as Marlene’s backstory, first at her agency where she appears humane in dealing with Jeanine, and then in the third act, set a year earlier, before her promotion, where we learn about Marlene’s family relations and that, like Margaret Thatcher, she originally spoke with a different class accent than her professional one. Along the way we meet two squabbling children, Kit (Raven Gabreille Perez) and Angie (Jenna Fields), who must somehow be related to Marlene, but we have to put that on hold until later. Angie suffers an ugly abrasive streak, threatening to kill her own mother with a brick and accusing Kit’s mother of sleeping around, although it’s clear that she’s unsure what might entail, only that it’s a severe insult.
As all the players from the celebration dinner show up transformed in later acts (actress Sumiko Cohen is seen in a kimono in the first act and as English businesswoman Nell later on), some audience members thought that the Marlene in later scenes might be an equivalent person, not the identical Top Girl. Such a misapprehension will render the play meaningless but is still understandable because Marlene does indeed present different faces. When we see her in the final scene, barefoot in the country, speaking in her unvarnished accent, she touts her worship of individual achievement and her contempt for the working classes. Not so much like Margaret Thatcher as another overweening Top Girl, Ayn Rand.
Like most college drama departments, Syracuse University enjoys a surplus of female talent, and the competition for eight roles has delivered excellent and highly individual performers in each instance. Mary Ann Pianka’s Marlene projects a kaleidoscope of emotions including charm, encouraging us for a while to identify with her aspirations. All the others play two or more roles, inviting some eye-rubbing at a second entrance. Alyssa Castellano’s bossy explorer Isabella contrasts sharply with her bedraggled, forlorn Joyce, Marlene’s misused sister. Each player delivers a scene-stealing moment, like Jenna Fields’ Gret (a medieval biker), Raven Gabrielle Perez’s feckless job applicant Shona, and Emily Zinski’s resigned and resigning middle-aged office worker, Louise.
Churchill’s dramas usually appear in edgy venues such as London’s Royal Court, the equivalent of off-Broadway. Thus, the superb resources at SU Drama’s shop, including Jennifer Medina-Gray’s scenic design, Molly Kathryn Weedon’s lighting design, and especially Alexander Koziara’s costumes, mean this is one of the best-looking Top Girls you’re ever likely to see.
This production runs through Sunday, Feb. 24. See Times Table for information.