Review: ‘Top Girls’ at A.C.T. (****)

by Charles Kruger

Nafeesa Monroe (L) and Michelle Black (R) as sisters Joyce and Marlene, who are divided by class and the life choices they’ve made in A.C.T.’s outstanding revival of Caryl Churchill’s deservedly admired 80’s classic, “Top Girls.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Marlene is a successful young executive, moving up in the world, past her male competition, and as happy as a clam. She is charming, smart, charismatic, decent, and considerate. Or is she, really, quite as she seems?

Churchill’s play is feminist in tone, but it is unusual in its exploration not only of women’s oppression but of the price that must be paid to rise above it. Written in the 1980s era of Reagan and the “iron lady,” Margaret Thatcher (the putative “decade of greed”), the play packed a wallop, and it still does in the new millennium.

In the somewhat surreal (and extremely funny and sometimes disturbing) opening act, Marlene is hosting a dinner party to celebrate her executive ascendancy at the Top Girls Employment Agency. Her guests are a variety of women from history, including Pope Joan, Dull Gret (the subject  of a Breughel painting of a peasant girl leading a woman’s army into Hell), Lady Nijo (a medieval Japanese concubine), Patient Griselda (a character from Chaucer), and Isabella Bird (a Victorian adventurer). As each of these “top girls” recounts their life experiences, the damning descriptions of women’s oppression throughout history hit hard. Marlene’s rise to the top appears to be a wonderful victory over the horrors of the past.

In subsequent, more realistic acts, we get a clearer picture of Marlene and the price she has paid for her achievement. By the end of the play, she seems far less admirable then she had first appeared, and we are left wondering if the modern advance of women doesn’t bring with it further oppressions and costs of a different sort than past and persistent injustices.

“Top Girls” has been regularly produced by major theatre companies for three decades, and it deserves to be. Its language is crisp, funny, and insightful, and the interest of its storytelling never flags.

A.C.T.’s revival is top-notch in every respect. As Marlene, Michelle Black offers a rich characterization, both appealing and offputting. As her sister Joyce, who ultimately makes a harsh assessment of Marlene’s life, Nafeesa Monroe is thoroughly sympathetic. As an ambitious young teenager with more hope than talent, Gabriella Monah is heartbreaking.

The supporting cast of Top Girls create vibrant characters and provoke much laughter, a welcome contrast to the more serious aspects of the play.

“Top Girls” plays at A.C.T. through October 13th at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. For further information, click here.

Rating: **** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill. Produced by A.C.T. Director: Tamilla Woodward. Scenic Designer: Nina Ball. Costume Designer: Sarita Fellows. Lighting Designer: Barbara Samuels. Sound Designer: Jack Rodriguez. 


Patient Griselda/Mrs. Kidd: Monique Hafen Adams. Marlene: Michelle Beck. Dull Grett/Nell: Summer Brown. Pope Joan/Win: Rosie Hallett. Kit/Shona: Lily Harris. Lady Nijo/Janine: Monica Lin. Isabella Bird/Louise: Julia McNeal. Angie: Gabriella Momah. Joyce/Waitress: Nafeesa Monroe. 

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