“Creepy” isn’t a word that gets paired with feminism very often. Caryl Churchill’s play “Top Girls,” directed by Assistant Professor of Theater Raimondo Genna, doesn’t just throw the two concepts together, it makes the combination feel natural.
The play is set in 1980s Britain during the time of Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister. The first act opens in a restaurant where Marlene, played by Brooke Grassby, is hosting a party to celebrate her promotion at the Top Girls Employment Agency. The guests are women from various historical periods or subjects of literature or art. They spend half of the first act discussing their lives and agreeing and disagreeing with one another.
Each woman has her own story to tell, but how it comes out depends on the character. Lady Nijo, a Japanese concubine-turned Buddhist nun played by Brianna Wetrosky, and Isabella Bird, a Victorian-era traveler played by Tarryn Rouse, rarely see eye to eye. Often when characters don’t get along they talk over one another, so the audience rarely hears more than a few words at a time.
A large comic relief is Dull Gret, a hulking Northern-type woman played by Lindsay Qualls. The subject of a painting depicting a raid on Hell by women, Dull Gret storms the stage with a sword, helmet, apron and basket. She seems to be confused at first, but soon settles down and concentrates on her food, drinking from the bottle and tearing at the bread with her teeth. Of the six women on stage at the time, she has the most memorable lines, though she talks the least and is more of a physical presence.
The combined stories show a very dark side to being a woman, but also manage to show a funny, if not happy side, as well. The comedy is quickly followed by a sudden gruesome or tragic end and the long tragic stories are ignored or talked over by others who feel what they have to say is more important.
After the restaurant scene, the rest of the play takes part in normal, everyday Britain. The audience is introduced to Angie, Marlene’s niece, portrayed by Brianna Bernard, through whom much of the creepiness of the play emanates from. Her friend Kit, portrayed by Eleanor Petersen, gets the honor of having the most disgusting and raunchy part of the entire production. She is overshadowed by Angie, who is not quite right in the head and whose relationship with her mother Joyce, played by Tarryn Rouse, is strained and tense. Angie’s attitude is scary and makes the audience feel very uncomfortable.
The most successful scene is the very last where Marlene, Joyce and Angie have a small family reunion after Marlene’s absence for five years. Grassby and Rouse portray their characters expertly, channeling sisterly love, hatred and bitterness. Their relationship is tense and unpredictable as Joyce works to mask her blame of Marlene and Marlene criticizes Joyce for her treatment of Angie.
The technical and support staff of the Theater department did an excellent job bringing the stage to life. As always, the set design was unique, original and surprising. Photos of Britain from the period projected onto background screens helped set the tone for the time period, as did the choice of music from the era. Transitions between scenes were clean, quick and fascinating. Instead of hiding the stage hands like a red-headed step-child, their presence was embraced and acknowledged.
Overall, the Theater department did an excellent job. The acting was memorable and polished, providing ample opportunity to evoke an emotional response from the audience. The people behind the scenes obviously put as much love and work into the set and lights as the actors put into their acting. “Top Girls” is a success for the department and participants and it is highly recommended to go see it while it is showing.