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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Two strong productions open in Minneapolis
Top Girls and Figaro

Guthrie Lab gives still topical Top Girls a tip-top production

The very name of English playwright Caryl Churchill's 1982 play, Top Girls, bleeds irony in the use of the diminutive "girls" for women; and it bleeds irony in that Churchill wrote it in response to the Thatcherite '80s, when to claw one's way to the top was what mattered and to hell with those who cannot climb. Some 21 years later, hard-nosed individualism dominates our political life again, and the Guthrie Lab's deftly produced Top Girls is funny, thought-provoking and feels as relevant as the day Churchill penned it.

Top Girls
Bianca Amato
Photo: Michal Daniel
Marlene is a winner, poised, self-certain and armed with stiletto wit. She has just bumped a man from the position of managing director of the upscale Top Girls employment agency in London. Young South African actress Bianca Amato emanates beautiful Marlene's cool sexuality and tough-minded authority, yet she also manages to tap the brittle girl who lurks within the assured woman.

With the help of a strong supporting cast, Amato's fine performance propels Top Girls through the political comedy's seemingly disparate parts and unites them into a whole that raises disquieting questions about a social order based entirely on merit, the value of individual success when traditional attitudes limit an entire class, and the self that a woman must surrender in order to achieve like a man.

The play opens with a delicious scene set in an up-market restaurant. To celebrate her promotion, Marlene flings a fantastical dinner party, attended by notable women from the past. There's Isabella, a Victorian world traveler, 13th century Nijo, a Japanese courtesan-cum Buddhist nun, Pope Joan from the ninth century, Chaucer's medieval Patient Griselda and Dull Gret, painted by Bruegel in the 16th century. It's a hilarious feast of overlapping conversations that ends in too much brandy and Pope Joan vomiting into her miter. During the meal, each woman reveals how her life has been seared by her ambition to reach beyond a woman's role.

Churchill sets the play's remaining four scenes in reality. Marlene reveals her uncaring you-can-succeed-as-long-as-you've-got-what-it-takes attitude as she disses inept clients, chats to co-workers and visits her working class sister and 16 year old niece Angie in the town in which she was raised. Finally, like her dinner guests, she must face an unexpected consequence of the choices she has made.

Although it's highly entertaining, Top Girls is not an easy play. Churchill requires audiences to connect scattered dots to form a whole picture. Casey Stangl's clear directing helps, and I was still sorting it through when I awoke the next morning, a process I relish after a meaty play.

Amato portrays just one character, Marlene, and, being from a country of the old British Commonwealth, she instinctively understands the intricacies of British class and accent and infuses Marlene with the subtleties of her insight. The remaining six actors, Isabell Monk O'Connor, Sally Wingert, Eunice Wong, Marquetta Senters, Andrea Wollenberg and Suzanne Warmanen play either two or three characters, and all are strong in their several roles.

As the courtesan and Marlene's co-worker, Wong shines. Sally Wingert pulls great humor out of the self-absorbed Victorian traveler, Isabella (although her Scottish accent slithers around a bit), but it is as Joyce, Marlene's bitter, working class sister, that Wingert is most affecting.

Warmanen has fun as coarse Gret, and she meets the challenge of playing the pivotal role of 16 year-old Angie, a lumpy, slow-witted girl. Angie does not have what it takes to get ahead. The first time we meet Angie and her 12 year-old friend, Kit (Monk O'Connor), the scene feels less toxic on stage than it does in the script, but we do see Angie's maladjustment and the environment she has grown up in, with Joyce's muttered assessment, "fucking rotten little cunt."

Stangl brings characteristically great touches to her directing. As each historical figure arrives on stage, she stays frozen, until Marlene awakens them into being with a greeting. Conversations tumble one on top of another, but Stangl mutes one voice, so that we can hear the other. Troy Hourie's clever modular set becomes a pleasing visual, even during scene changes, as it's pushed into place with paced precision.

The colors of Devon Painter's rich costumes (power clothes for Marlene) caress the eye, and Marcus Dillard's light design moves from painterly light to bleached shades as circumstances force Marlene to look beneath the gloss of her success.

Top Girls May 16 - June 15. Tuesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinees on selected Saturdays and Sundays 1:00 p.m. $22 - $30. Guthrie Lab, 700, North First Street, Minneapolis. Call: 612-377-2224. Toll Free: 877-44 Stage. www.guthrietheater.org.

Jeune Lune revolutionizes Figaro

Irrepressible Theatre de la Jeune Lune took something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and married old elements from Beaumarchais' play and Mozart's opera, The Marriage of Figaro, to create something brand new, their very own Figaro, part play, part opera and, despite a dejected Figaro, all gleeful romp.

This Figaro sports the sedition in Beaumarchais' original play and revels in the glorious singing of Mozart's score and da Ponte's libretto, but Jeune Lune packs the new work with a re-invented story, doubled-up characters and the odd pot shot at our kingly father and son Bush dynasty.

If you think because you know the The Marriage of Figaro you will be able to sit back and follow along, think again. Sure, the characters are all there, but this Figaro is set not in Spain, but in the revengeful chaos of post-French Revolution Paris.

Figaro tells its reworked story in double time. Jeune Lune plays the action that takes place after the Revolution as loopy comedy, with Steven Epp as old Figaro, Dominique Serrand as the old Count and Barbra Berlovitz as old Suzanna, and they milk muddled but hilarious fun from canny Figaro's semi-changed relationship with his autocratic master, Count Almaviva. Figaro has rescued the Count from the fate of the guillotine and hides him in his house. The Count is now "Mr. Almaviva," Figaro insists; master and servant are equals. But when the ungrateful Count commands, Figaro can't help himself - he leaps to serve, as programmed as a Pavlovian dog.

True to the original play and opera, action in the flashback takes place on young Figaro and Suzanna's wedding day, when the randy young Count tries to outfox Figaro and Suzanna to assert his "droit de seigneur," a barbaric privilege that allows the lord to sleep with his servant girls on their wedding nights. Jeune Lune borrows directly from Mozart and da Ponte for this flashback and talented young singers plunge into opera, sometimes with both sets of players on stage, as the characters' older selves revisit their turbulent youths.

Captivating baritone Bradley Greenwald high steps into the shoes of young Count Almaviva and floods the stage with his fine voice and mischievous persona. The Count's target is young Susanna, beautifully sung by soprano Momoko Tanno. Lovely Jennifer Baldwin Peden sings the disregarded Countess in a mezzo soprano that's as warm and mellow as a bath of summer honey. Her accomplished sister, soprano Christina Baldwin, sings the trouser role of Cherubino, and she has a wonderfully naughty surprise tucked under her belt. I'll say no more! As young Figaro, Charles Schwandt's deep baritone never quite fills out; on opening night, it was as though he was holding his voice in check.

Barbara Brooks conducts the Pentimento string quartet that is set dramatically on a high turret, stage right.

With little in the way of set, Jeune Lune achieves superb theatricality through the creative use of videography. Serrand, Elizabeth Huber and Daniel Lori designed a backdrop video that appears to be happening in real time, so that a video of old Figaro dragging a heavy closet along a train track transitions to a panting Epp lugging the closet (the Count is concealed within) on to the stage, his every gesture caught live on video.

This continues throughout Figaro, and it represents one more layer in a complexity of doubleness: the action is played in double time, with doubled characters and with doubled images from three onstage cameras that give different angles and that zoom-in, television-style, to facial expressions.

Created by Serrand and Epp, Figaro features moments of Jeune Lune's signature legerdemain. Characters magic into the wrong bed, disappear, and an old man drops into his younger self. Figaro starts a tad slow, but surrender to the flow, and it develops into a delightful frolic with fine singing.

Figaro May 23 - June 29. Thursdays - Sundays 8:00 p.m. $10 - $26. Theatre de la Jeune Lune, 105, North First Street, Minneapolis. Call: 612-333-6200, or www.jeunelune.com.



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Elizabeth Weir



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