Theater Review: TOP GIRLS (Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Theater Wit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 20, 2020

in Theater-Chicago


“I want it all.” “The sky’s [not] the limit.” “You only live once.” “You can’t take it with you.”: We’re fascinated by all the pride that precedes a fall. We can conditionally identify with hyper self-assertion — then strategically withdraw our sympathies when it comes a cropper. That’s what still works, almost 40 years later, with Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s sprawling, nearly three-hour 1982 tour d’ambition.

It was initially written to lambaste the kind of false feminism embodied by Margaret Thatcher and her “Iron Lady” mentality, where women mattered because they could be worse than men.

But it’s still a useful club to wield against one-upping careerists who eschew any sense of sisterly solidarity and regularly require sacrifices from strangers and loved ones. Every mean move they make is to advance a resumé that, like power-mad Regina at the end of The Little Foxes, just leaves mean girls lonely at the top.

Churchill does not like patriarchs in petticoats, ladies who lunch (on each other), and, defying their natural nurturing instincts, play men’s worst games for the same empty values and self-defeating success.

Now at Theater Wit in an elaborately staged and exhaustively detailed revival by Keira Fromm for Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, this three-acter (actually more like a trilogy since each act bears its own style as well as story) shows us someone who has it all, as in nothing. Marlene is a rising honcho in a corporate head-hunting recruitment firm. We see her from all angles — respectively in each act: a historical perspective; at work; and in her diminished domestic side.

In the first act, which plays like a wishful dream sequence and features a ton of maddeningly overlapping dialogue, managing director Marlene (Linda Gillum, slyly carnivorous and scarily charismatic) celebrates her latest promotion at a self-congratulatory fete at a swank Chinese restaurant in London.

Marlene has surrounded herself with famous women from past centuries who got their ways but lost their souls — and were not above artfully confusing rape with advancement.

These are the apocryphal Pope Joan (Rebecca Spence), supposedly stoned to death after giving birth during a papal procession; Dull Gret (Aurora Real de Asua), a crude peasant rebel painted by Breughel; 13th-century Japanese concubine Lady Nijo (Karisa Murrell Myers), full of cupidity and courtly intrigue; Victorian explorer Isabella Bird (Annabel Armour) who considers marriage an insufficient “step” for her aspirations; and Patient Griselda (Amber Sallis), whose abandonment of her children resonates with Marlene.

In the next scene we meet Marlene’s niece Angie (de Assua) who wants to kill her mother Joyce (Spence) and her bratty pal Kit in a laundry-laden back yard.

In one of many amazing transformations by set designer Courtney O’Neill, we next move to Marlene’s coldly trendy firm, a vortex of egos in overdrive: Rapid-fire scenes expose the calculatingly competitive career advice they give prospective job-seekers. We endure an ugly encounter with the wife of a flunky passed over for Marlene’s advancement. Angie’s arrival reveals her misplaced admiration for Marlene’s materialism and “fake it till you make it” phoniness and amorality.

The secret-sharing final act contrasts sisters Marlene and Joyce, their darkly divisive differences in personality and politics painfully palpable, as well as their ambivalence over daughter Angie’s past and future. Rejecting her rural roots and pooh-poohing Joyce’s more than sibling solidarity, Marlene has cut herself off from compassion, sisterhood and her better self.

No question, in creating a character as well as a type, Churchill makes anti-nice Marlene a cautionary phenom. Gillum plays her with ice in every vein, a dubious pioneer who gets badly cut every time she cracks the glass ceiling. The other seven women (including Vahishta Vafadari and Rebecca Hurd) are equally focused, accents and all, in the immediacy of every line and moment, a Remy Bumppo trademark.

Empowerment at others’ expense is a very tricky trade-off. But why should whatever is wrong with and for men be any different in a distaff dispensation?

Churchill asks this question — and, wow, does she ever answer it too!

photos by Michael Courier

Top Girls
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Wed-Sat at 7:30; Sat & Sun at 2:30 (check for varied schedule)
ends on February 22, 2020
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit Remy Bumppo

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Karen January 29, 2020 at 3:25 am

Great performances! Really loved it


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