Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Success at All Costs

Top Girls

Rosie Hallett, Summer Brown, Michelle Beck, Monica Lin, Julia McNeal

By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tamilla Woodard
A.C.T. Geary Theater, San Francisco

Until October 13, 2019

“Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill is a paradoxically anachronistic and timeless examination of the quandaries faced by women who try to make their mark on the world. Set in 1982 in Thatcher’s England, the fast-paced crosstalk among the characters creates an annoying noise that’s hard to follow until one realizes that the characters are trying to find their own “signal” in the noise.

Marlene (Michelle Beck), voluptuous and powerful in a striking red dress, is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls Employment Agency with a dinner party at a posh restaurant with her besties who happen to be unique women from different historical and fictional times. It is interesting to compare this scenario with Judy Chicago’s art installation “The Dinner Party”
which was making the rounds around the same time as the play.

With their stories of struggle and resilience in a man’s world, Marlene’s female mentors are enhanced by the wonderfully inventive costume designs of Sarita Fellows. Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett) regales the group with stories of how she fooled everyone into thinking she was a man. Dull Gret (Summer Brown) carries the fierceness captured by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his apocalyptic painting of 1563. Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal), indeed a tough British bird, matter-of-factly describes how intense physical pain did not keep her from intrepid world travels. Soft-spoken Lady Nijo (Monica Lin) describes her path from royalty to exile to enlightened compassion.  Had there been room at the table, Lady Macbeth with her plea to “unsex me here” would have fit right in. 

Summer Brown and Rosie Hallett

Marlene relishes her role as a woman in power, but the very name of “Top Girls” diminishes the impact. Because “girls” could go just so far in a man’s world, their only recourse is to find ways to win. I am reminded of that 80’s guide Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women .

In the office, Marlene reigns supreme in impeccable, shoulder-padded dress-for-success garb, and the other women fear and respect her. Her disdain of weakness becomes an unspoken measure of candidate selection as she ferrets out those who will “never make it.”

Michelle Beck and Gabriella Momah

Marlene’s tightly ordered universe is challenged when Angie (a desperately confused and vulnerable Gabriella Momah), the daughter of Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe), visits her favorite aunt Marlene unexpectedly at the office. Marlene at first feigns delight but realizes she can’t let Angie live with her as the teenager wants. As the reality of the relationship of Marlene, Joyce, and Angie is disclosed, we realize the sad effects of Marlene’s decision to choose power over maternal love. She is a victim of her own cross-talk between being a player in a man’s world vs. that of a mother to a child who just might not “make it.”

Michelle Beck and Nafeesa Monroe
I can’t say that I liked this play, but I thought about it a lot days after. Following it takes patience, and a few audience members left at intermission. Not a comfortably linear play with a discernible plot, “Top Girls” is as if Churchill were exploring an iceberg where the visible part is a mere fragment of the huge mystery underneath.

"Top Girls" by Caryl Churchill, directed by Tamilla Woodard, A.C.T. Geary Theater,
San Francisco, through Sunday, October 13, 2019. Info: act-sf.org


All photos by Kevin Berne

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

CREATIVE TEAM
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tamilla Woodard
Scenic Designer Nina Ball
Costume Designer Sarita Fellows
Lighting Designer Barbara Samuels
Sound Designer Jake Rodriguez
Voice and Dialect Coach Christine Adaire
Dramaturg Allie Moss
Casting Director Janet Foster, CSA
Assistant Director Karina Fox

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.

** Member of the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program class of 2020.







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