If you keep your ear to the Boston theatre community, you've probably heard the name Caryl Churchill come up often in recent months. September of last year marked Churchill's seventy-fifth birthday, and more than one theatre company in Boston has chosen to celebrate the British playwright known for her surrealist and postmodernist writing style and explorations of gender, sexuality, politics and power. While Whistler in the Dark is wrapping up a season-long celebration of Churchill's work, Bad Habit Productions just opened Top Girls, Churchill's 1982 play about women's struggles for success and acceptance in male-dominated environments.
The play focuses on Marlene, a strong-headed, acerbic, and incredibly ambitious young woman who has just been promoted at the London employment agency where she works, but it's revealed later on that her professional success has required personal sacrifice. In the first act, Marlene throws a dinner party to celebrate her promotion, and Churchill's surrealist tendencies come through as Marlene's guests arrive: each one is an historical or fictional woman from a different background and time period, and they have all suffered to achieve some goal. There's Pope Joan, played by Gillian Mackay-Smith, who has lived her life as a man in order to pursue an education and, ultimately, the papacy, although her story ends tragically when her deception is revealed. Mackay-Smith has previously appeared in productions from Fresh Ink Theatre Company and The Footlight Club. She skillfully captures both the passionate high-mindedness and unexpected humor of Pope Joan. Also among Marlene's guests is Isabella Bird, an outspoken and somewhat brash Victorian-era explorer (inspired by an historical figure) who talks of her world travels. Caroline Price rises to the occasion and plays Isabella with vivacity and a fantastic Scottish accent. Price is an artistic associate with Boston Actors Theater, and she previously received a 2013 IRNE Best Actress nomination for her performance in Paper City Phoenix.
The entire first act begins to feel like a bizarre dream as the women, each speaking in a different accent, continually talk over each other or break off into separate conversations. It is at times impossible to follow all of the dialogue. The chaos is controlled, however; the actresses (impressively) never miss a cue and their accents are strong, a testament to dialect coach Crystal Lisbon. While the entire act takes place in a single restaurant setting, director Liz Fenstermaker's blocking keeps the performers active and the lighting provides focus and transition when needed, at times dimming to spotlight a single character and then brightening again to illuminate the entire stage. These elements, combined with Churchill's continual oscillation between dialogue and monologue, provide a sense of flow and movement.
The second and third acts follow a somewhat more conventional format as Marlene interacts with female coworkers, her estranged sister Joyce (played by Janelle Mills), and her childish and sometimes manic teenage niece Angie (played by Catherine Buxton).
Courtland Jones is a fantastic Marlene. Her bold, red hair and low, clear voice lend themselves well to Marlene's powerful persona: Picture a cross between Joan from "Mad Men" and Amy Pond from "Doctor Who." Of course, it's Jones' talent that brings Marlene to life; she is an M.F.A. graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design and has previously performed with The Longwood Players (Rock and Roll) and Apollinaire Theatre Company (Caucasian Chalk Circle). For Top Girls, Jones has mined the depths of Marlene and found a way to portray her strengthspassion, ambition, and a will to surviveand weaknessesher suppression of her emotions and her inability (or lack of desire) to maintain a healthy family life. Jones plays Marlene with great spirit and finesse, and it's truly enjoyable to watch her work onstage.
Mills, a founding member of Exquisite Corps Theatre Company and who has performed with many area theatres, including Vaquero Playground, Lyric Stage, and Stoneham Theatre, truly excels as Marlene's deeply troubled sister Joyce. Mills brings out the humanity and complexity of her character, a woman simultaneously motivated by a sense of duty and bitter about where that duty has gotten her. Buxton, a Sociology and Drama graduate of Vassar College, masterfully plays Angie, oscillating with skill between her character's two extremes: childish tantrums and timidity and physically violent outbursts.
Caryl Churchill's Top Girls runs through April 27, 2014, at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02116. Tickets are $18 purchased in advance or $23 on the day of the show. For tickets and performance details visit badhabitproductions.org.