Chicago Theatre Review
Top Girls – Arc Theatre
If given the opportunity to ask any famous person from history to dinner, who would you invite? To celebrate her big promotion at the Top Girls Employment Agency, Marlene has chosen a very interesting group of strong, unusually independent women, particularly considering the varied locales and time periods from which they come. Invited to Marlene’s dinner party are the mythical female Pope Joan, who achieved her position dressed as a man during the Middle Ages; the 19th century Scottish author and international explorer, Isabella Bird; Chaucer’s fictional Patient Griselda from his Canterbury Tales; 13th century Japanese concubine to the Emperor, Lady Nijo; and Mad Meg, the Flemish peasant woman who invaded hell with a brigade of women warriors in artist Peter Brueghel’s painting, Dulle Griet.
This surreal opening scene to Caryl Churchill’s 1982 classic dramatic comedy examines the 1980’s Women’s Lib Movement by looking at one very career-driven, independent woman, bent on becoming a success in the predominantly male-dominated world of business. Told in an unconventional, non-linear fashion, Churchill’s story begins at the end, flashes to the middle, and then ultimately concludes at the beginning, soon after Marlene’s decision to leave her small town home and head to London seeking her fortune. She leaves her illegitimate daughter Angie to be raised by her working class sister Joyce, who not only miscarried her own child but was abandoned by her husband. By the end of the play, audiences will recognize the similarities between Marlene’s Act I dinner guests and the various other characters in her life. The playwright takes a hard look at what it means to be a “successful” woman and explores the achievements made through the feminist movement. With British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as her role model, Marlene is shown to be a somewhat heartless and uncaring woman, driven to achieve her own personal success.
Mark Boergers’ production is naturally vital, creatively insistent and so perfect for today’s audiences. His direction is crisp and flawless, especially when coupled with Dustyn Martincich’s dynamic, highly-synchronized movement that opens the play and resumes as the stage is reset for each scene. Set to Matt Reich’s wonderfully evocative 1980’s techno sound design, Boergers’ 10 talented, all-female ensemble’s execution of the choreography is precise and stirring, yet sensual and mesmerizing. Catharine Young’s costumes are perfect, especially when allowing for the actors’ quick changes necessary for playing multiple roles; and Cailin Short’s adaptable set design, particularly her visionary picture windows, open up a playground of opportunities for the cast.
Patricia Lavery leads the cast superbly as Marlene. She provides a nice balance of cold-hearted business acumen while battling with her conscience and feelings. But as strong as Ms. Lavery is in this central role, so are every other member of this talented cast. Beautiful Meg Elliott is strong and verbally precise, both as the Scottish Isabella Bird and as Mrs. Kidd, a devoted wife who fights for her husband’s job at the Agency. Lana Smithner’s Lady Nijo is the model of self control and propriety, while her contemporary employee Win is dynamic and catty. Kate Marie Smith is terrific as both office employee Nell and a lovely Patient Griselda, defending her unorthodox life choices and being content with their consequences. Pamela Mae Davis is a strong, captivating Pope Joan, while bringing a sad empathy to her middle-aged would-be employee, Louise. Proving her skill as a comedian, Kelsey Phillips earns big laughs as the primitive warrior, Dull Gret, while achieving pathos and chuckles as young interviewee, Shona. Both Tyler Meredith and Aislinn Kerchaert are equally funny and heartbreaking as two confused, needy adolescents, Kit and Angie, while Natalie Sallee wrings all the emotion and heart from her portrayal of Marlene’s sister, Joyce.
Caryl Churchill’s classic comedy is most famous for her unique opening scene, during which five famous historical women enjoy a contemporary dinner party while discussing the various societal roles for women through the ages. But, largely due to Mark Boergers’ smartly produced, well-acted production, the scenes that follow are equally as exciting. This unorthodox production amplifies everything the playwright says about women’s rights, feminism and personal life in a way that makes this 30-year-old play feel fun, fresh and new.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 15-February 8 by The Arc Theatre at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-398-7028 or by going to www.arctheatrechicago.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.