Timeless classic makes for Top-notch theatre

MTC’s take on Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a compelling experience

This dinner party looks awkward: Tracy Penner (left) as Dull Gret and Jennifer Villaverde as Lady Nijo in Top Girls. Bruce Monk

Both charmingly humorous and startlingly disturbing, MTC’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls vividly illustrates the subjugation, struggles and successes of various women throughout history.

Top Girls is a socially conscious, feminist play set in the 1980s that depicts the life of Marlene, a professional who receives a lofty promotion at work.

The time-transcending, nonlinear play progresses from the fantastic to the realistic, with the first scene depicting a celebratory dinner Marlene holds to mark her promotion. In attendance are five remarkable women from various points in history, including Pope Joan, a female pope of the 850s who lived as a man to pursue religious studies, and Lady Nijo, a Japanese Buddist nun who wrote about her experiences walking through Japan.

Each of the characters are strikingly vibrant. It’s an impressive accomplishment of both the skilled actresses, most of whom play two different characters, and the costume and makeup crew who managed to create such distinctive looks for each of the characters. The actresses remained unrecognizable between their alternate roles.

Perhaps the most compelling character was Dull Gret, a primitive warrior woman and dinner guest, played by Tracy Penner. Though she remained silent for most of the scene, the words she did speak were spoken with enough emotional intensity to change the energy in the theatre from warm and light-hearted to deeply tragic in a matter of seconds.

While the actresses meticulously mastered the overlapping dialogue, a feature which Churchill wrote into the script, it proved to be somewhat overwhelming, forcing one to frantically choose which woman to listen to.

Since each of the characters had such interesting tales to tell it was a shame to miss anything. However, this feature did bring an authentic dinner-party feel to the stage.

Overall, Top Girls showcases the remarkable accomplishments of women not just within the script but at every level of the play’s production and execution.

The attention to detail was remarkable, from the sharp, synchronized set changes to the ornate costumes, right down to the props – the food at the dinner even seemed to be wafting delicious aromas throughout the theatre.

Like most socially powerful plays, the ending of Top Girls was deeply ambiguous. Viewers will no doubt leave the theatre with a lot of mental material to digest.

Published in Volume 64, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 28, 2010)

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