Monday, April 30, 2018

Top Girls: Thatcher-Era Feminism

Sophia Ramos, Carmen Herlihy, Paula Plum, Carmen Zilles, and Vanessa Kai in Top Girls. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Thirty-six years after the original production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at London’s Royal Court, the play – a revival of which concludes the Huntington Theatre’s mainstage season – feels inescapably like a remnant from the Thatcher years. That’s particularly true of the second act, which culminates in a long quarrel between two sisters, Marlene (Carmen Zilles), a high-powered single woman who works in a London employment agency, and Joyce (Sophia Ramos), a divorcée who stayed behind in the dilapidated working-class exurb Marlene couldn’t wait to escape from. Marlene’s conservative politics are meant to suggest her emotional and moral limitations; this is, after all, a Caryl Churchill play. The playwright tips her hand when it becomes clear that Joyce has raised Marlene’s illegitimate child, Angie (Carmen M. Herlihy), now a developmentally-delayed sixteen-year-old who adores the aunt she seldom gets to see. (You’d think that Churchill might have come up with a more persuavive device than a revelation that seems to have come out of a Victorian melodrama.)

Act two works, on its own schematic kitchen-sink terms, but act one, which is far more imaginative, doesn’t seem to – at least, it doesn’t in the Huntington production and in my view it doesn’t on the page. It’s a fantasy collage that answers the old speculative question – the one that still gets asked in the author interviews at the front of The New York Times Book Review – “If you could invite any group of people, living or dead, to a dinner party, whom would you choose?” In Top Girls Marlene hosts a dinner for five iconic historical women: the unmarried nineteenth-century English travel writer and proto-conservationist Isabella Bird (Paula Plum); the Japanese concubine-turned-nun Lady Nijo (Vanessa Kai); Dull Gret (Herlihy), a figure out of legend who led a band of women to hell and is the subject of a Bruegel painting; Pope Joan (Ramos), a possibly fictional character who cross-dressed and became Pope; and Patient Griselda (Elia Monte-Brown), a character immortalized in much fourteenth-century literature who, put to pathologically severe tests by her husband, embodied the virtue of womanly fidelity. These characters talk at each other, relating their mostly tragic stories. (Several of them lost children.)

As director Liesl Tommy has staged that first act for the Huntington – extremely clumsily – it’s hard to know what to make of it. You get the feminist point easily enough; what you don’t get is how it’s supposed to work dramatically. I thought Tommy botched act two as well, though part of the problem is Rachel Hauck’s remarkably ugly scenic design, with a bank of blinding club lights upstage, and (in the first scene) baffling projections by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. The actresses, whom we’re more willing to accept in the first half because the style is so extreme and we can’t have any preconceptions about how these figures out of history and folklore are supposed to be played, mostly seem miscast in the realist 1980s section. Herlihy works very hard at the role of Angie, but even given the reality that the role of a sixteen-year-old is going to be played by an adult who has just appeared as Gret (Churchill meant the roles to be double-cast), she’s such a big woman that she towers over everyone else on the stage. Ramos looks about twenty years older than Zilles, who is playing her sister. And the English accents are terribly unconvincing. It doesn’t help that Tommy has directed the women so badly – in the big climactic scene between the two sisters, there’s so much shouting that you wish you had earplugs. (Angie comes down from her bedroom after the fight and confronts Marlene about being her real mother, and Marlene is unsettled that the girl overheard their conversation, but they were so damn loud that you can’t imagine they could have thought for a second that she wouldn’t.)

I think some of these actresses are talented, but the only one who comes across as believable is Paula Plum, who plays two middle-aged women who seek the help of the counselors at the Top Girls Employment Agency earlier in act two. Plum, a veteran Boston performer, makes both these characters, especially the one who has decided to leave a long-held job for the pleasure of trying something new, completely real by refusing to overstate them – by simply inhabiting them. In the context of this production, she’s a tonic.


– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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