Theater Review: TOP GIRLS (A.C.T. in San Francisco)

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by Tony Frankel on September 26, 2019

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


For the most part, Joyce, a working class Englishwoman in Ipswich is not a sympathetic or likeable person: She is annoyed by her teenage daughter Angie (who admittedly is belligerent and daft), and begrudging toward her sister, Marlene, whom she views as a ball-busting, career-driven, selfish, soulless abandoner (not that there isn’t some truth in that). Marlene escaped their dysfunctional home years ago and is now a newly promoted managing director at an employment agency named Top Girls. After years away from her estranged sister, Marlene makes an unexpected visit, but the sisters’ acrimonious relationship causes them to have a particularly pernicious argument, after which Marlene exits to say good-night to her niece in another room.

Joyce is left alone. Nafeesa Monroe, who plays Joyce in A.C.T.’s superlative revival of English playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1982 feminist manifesto, Top Girls, doesn’t go for self-pity or righteousness in this moment; before slumping her head into her hands, she simply gazes with a careworn, faraway look, but we can see the millennia of female strife in her eyes. This quiet, naked moment not only articulates Churchill’s themes — a woman’s precarious balance between work and personal life and getting ahead; surviving; finding fulfillment in a male-dominated world — but it is part of a tremendous scene in a play pocked with them. The mélange of magical moments that swirls throughout the production more than compliments the brilliance of the play.

Yet be aware before you go that Churchill writes with a non-linear structure. In her plays, themes of gender identity, feminist politics, and class struggle have straightforward scenes interspersed with dreamlike incidents which at first glance seem to have nothing to do with the story. In fact, Top Girls begins with a surrealist scene at a posh London restaurant in which Marlene impossibly brings together famous women from history to celebrate her promotion by drinking and trading war stories. This very funny scene involves Pope Joan, the Victorian traveler Isabella Bird, the 13th-century Japanese courtesan turned Buddhist nun Lady Nijo, Dull Gret from Brueghel’s painting depicting a woman in armor running through hell and routing devils, and Patient Griselda, whose story is told in The Canterbury Tales! Then it’s back-and-forth between the temp office and then Joyce’s home.

Don’t bolt at intermission, as some did at opening night, if you don’t understand this vacillation between Naturalism and Surrealism. For the better part of her long and distinguished career, Churchill (Far Away, Cloud Nine) has veered from realism the better to explore her trademark themes while bringing attention to barbarism and the abuse of power. I’m not sold, as some are, that she is Britain’s greatest living playwright — sometimes she’s so abstruse that I get a headache trying to put the pieces together. For the uninitiated, I can assert that Top Girls is one of her most accessible works. Let director Tamilla Woodard, her impeccable cast, and Nina Ball’s amazing set of fake glass brick and then realistic interiors put the pieces together for you. Woodard brings nuance, beats, and back story to each of the many characters (9 women play 16 roles).

By the way, the famous women at the party both represent the history of women’s oppression in a man’s world and different aspects of Marlene’s psyche. All the women at the dinner had to sacrifice their children and motherhood to “succeed” and all were tormented by their “decision” to do so. Each of the women also reflect the fears and aspirations of Marlene. The consequences of this “leaning in” have been delayed and damaged daughters who will perpetuate this patriarchy. Frightening.

Also in the cast: Monique Hafen Adams, Michelle Beck, Summer Brown, Rosie Hallett, Lily Harris, Monica Lin, Julia McNeal, and Gabriella Momah.

photos by Kevin Berne

Top Girls
American Conservatory Theater
A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street
ends on October 13, 2019
for tickets, call 415.749.2228 or visit A.C.T.

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