Review: ‘Top Girls’ at Custom Made Theatre (***)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Top Girls” plays at the Gough Street Playhouse through April 13, 2014.)

Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” premiered in London in 1982, when Margaret  Thatcher, the Prime Minster of England, sent her country to war in the Falkland Islands, and pursued a conservative policy of dismantling England’s welfare state. The most powerful woman in the world was pursuing a conservative political agenda in every way at odds with the more leftist feminist movement that had paved the way for her election.

It was in this context that Caryl Churchill set out to write a play to try and explore the meaning of female power in the home and in society. The play that she wrote was one of the most successful and controversial of that decade, and solidifed her reputation as a leading playwright.

The opening sequence presents a dinner party of “top girls” from history, hosted by London business woman Marlene, who is celebrating her promotion to be managing director of “Top Girls” employment agency. It raises profound questions about the proper “employment” of women as these powerful characters get drunk together and describe their life experiences.

Monica Cappuccini as Pope Joan comforts Mimu Tsujimura as Lady Nijo in Customade Theatre's revival of Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls". Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.
Monica Cappuccini as Pope Joan comforts Mimu Tsujimura as Lady Nijo in Customade Theatre’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls”. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

They include Pope Joan (the mythical woman pope of the middle ages), Lady Nijo (a Japanese courtesan from the 14th century), Patient Griselda (a suffering and obedient wife described in Chaucer’s  “Canterbury Tales”), Dull Gret or Mad Meg, a character in a painting by Brueghel who leads a group of women into an assault on Hell. Last of the crowd is Isabella Bird, a famous Victorian adventuress whose travel books reflected the imperialist mindset of Victorian England.

The two subsequent acts depict Marlene’s personal and professional life, and the experiences which reflect and comment upon those of women throughout history. The last act, which involves a confrontation between the successful Marlene and her lower-middle-class sister, serves to challenge an understanding of feminism that fails to address economic inequities, but celebrates the “success” (Marlene’s or, by implication, Marget Thatcher’s) of modern women without regard to the costs paid.

This complex play has been called (by the distinguished British director and theatre writer, Dominic Drumgoole), “a dazzling intellectual fantasia, a technically brilliant circus act that flings around heavyweight intellectual conceit as if it were light as air.”

In short, this is a complex, weighty and challenging play. It is just the sort of politically charged, intellectually bracing work that is the calling card of Custommade Theatre Company. Audiences who seek out work with substantial intellectual and political content will be pleased and excited.

The challenge of a piece of this sort is to communicate the complex social commentary while still providing entertainment and mainting interest for a lengthy evening. Director Laura Lundy-Paine succeeds in this regard.

The intellectual content is very accessible, most especially in the justifiably famous historical dinner party that comprises the first act. With its many allusions, complex overlapping dialogue, and emotional fireworks it is a tour de force of ensemble playing when successfully accomplished, as it is here.

The performance would benefit from greater attention to its comedic potential, but overall this is a production well worth attending.

For further information, click here.

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“Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill, presented by Custom Made Theatre. Director: Laurel Lundy-Paine. Scenic Design /Props: Kevin Dunning. Lighting Design: Colin Johnson. Sound Design/Composition: Liz Ryder. 

Marlene: Cary Cronholm Rose. Isabella Bird/Joyce/Mrs. Kidd: Cat Luedtke. Lady Nijo/Win: Mimu Tsujimura. DullGret/Angie: Katie Robbins. Pope Joan/Louise: Monica Cappuccini. Patient Griselda/Nell/Jeanine: Carina Lastimosa Salazar. Waitresss/Kit/Shona: Megan Putnam.

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