Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Top Girls
Theatre Pro Rata
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Brujería for Beginners


Maggie Cramer, Kelsey Laurel Cramer, Megan Kim,
Sarah Broude, and Emily Rosenberg

Photo by Alex Wohlhueter
Theatre Pro Rata's production of Top Girls is a "top of its class" event, with terrific performances that bring Caryl Churchill's play to chilling life. Carin Bratlie Wethern's staging brilliantly succeeds in rendering the self-regarding attitudes and rapid-fire, overlapping dialog as the play's personae engage in verbal jousting. These titular "girls" are far more interested in what they have to say than in listening to anyone else, or even whether anyone else is listening to them. One wonders if the playwright doesn't suffer some of the same tendency, having great confidence in the worth of her left-leaning viewpoint, and less concern as to how much of it the audience gathers. The play is at times obtuse and takes sudden jolts that threaten to live audience members behind.

And yet, Top Girls has so much on its mind, and the dramatic way stations Churchill creates are so intriguing, it is worth the effort to stew through and sort out. Its opening scene is a master work in itself, a fantastical dinner party at a posh restaurant hosted by Marlene to celebrate her promotion to a management position at an employment agency. Her five dinner guests are women whose lifetimes span a dozen centuries. Two of the women were real personages: Lady Nijo was a thirteenth century Japanese concubine to the emperor who became a Buddhist nun; and Isabella Bird was a nineteenth century English explorer, naturalist and writer, whose world travels were popular reading in her day.

One guest, Pope Joan, may or may not have existed. According to legend, she lived her life as a man and, as such, was made Pope, from 855-857. The final two guests were artists' creations, though based on types found in folklore. Patient Griselda, whose great "achievement" is her total obedience to her husband, appears in the writings of Boccaccio, Chaucer and Petrarch. Dull Gret is a fierce peasant woman who leads a mob pillaging Hell in a 1587 oil painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel.

From this hallucinatory beginning, the play divides into two quite credible strands, one in which Marlene and a pair of co-workers at the employment agency sit in judgement as to the suitability of their clients for various positions, enjoying the power they hold to place and refer—or not—these needful women. The other strand follows Angie, an awkward and obviously troubled teenager who lives with her frosty mother in a down-at-heel rural village. The scenes shift back and forth between the agency and the homestead, at some points converging.

The agency "top girls," like the guests at Marlene's party, have made a success of themselves, in spite of the odds against them as women. Of course, the historical context makes quite a difference if one is gauging the success of a women. Today, Lady Nijo and Patient Griselda would be viewed as horribly oppressed by the yoke of male dominance, but measured against that state of affairs, they were indeed remarkable.

Modern career girl Marlene, on the other hand, is very much in control of her trajectory, though she's had to boost her own status and leave other women behind. She heartily approves of Margaret Thatcher's iron-lady persona, hailing her achievement as the first woman prime minister of England, claiming "Anyone can do anything if they've got what it takes," to which comes the retort "And if they haven't?". Angie serves as a prime example of this concern. That is not Marlene's business. Making the most of herself is her only responsibility. The play is generally viewed as a rebuke of Thatcherism, arriving three years after Thatcher took office, but the moral argument it lays out—obliquely at first, and then quite bluntly—continues to divide civic life.

The cast assembled to portray these women give their parts (all but Maggie Cramer, as a cheerily steely Marlene, cover two or three roles) the breath of total authenticity. Maggie Cramer fully embodies Marlene, her bright red lipstick marking her as a devotee of the blood sport that is her life. Though she has worked hard to achieve everything she has, she exudes confidence and a sense of entitlement. She can be cut short, though, if the narrative undercuts her worldview, as when she stumbles out of the dinner party after hearing too much about Patient Griselda's degradation. Cramer's performance knits the play together as she provides a stark presentation of all that is right and all that is wrong with "top girls" like her.

In the mad dinner party scene, Megan Kim as Lady Nijo, Kelsey Laurel Cramer as Isabella Bird, and Sarah Broude as Pope Joan stand out. Beneath a brash persona, Kim reveals the hint of regret Lady Nijo keeps concealed even from herself for a life that required her to celebrate constant humiliations as the hallmark of her accomplishments. Broude's display of delight at Joan's deception as Pope is contagious, and she takes great relish in the abounding ironies that resulted. Cramer, as Bird, is delightfully oblivious to the feelings or concerns of anyone else in the room as she prattles on about her self-indulgent adventures around the globe.

Nissa Nordland Morgan has a far more subtle role as Patient Griselda, but persuasively expresses the strength, even achievement, underlying her submissiveness. Emily Rosenberg, as Dull Gret, is fairly quiet, bar the occasional vulgar comment, throughout most of the dinner party, but when they erupts, it is with monumental fervor.

Later, Rosenberg cannily portrays Angie, creating a disturbing character, yet one who draws upon our sympathy. She illustrates, through her own pain and confusion and longing, the brutal reality of those about whom Marlene and her fellow "top girls" respond so coldly to that question "what if they haven't got what it takes?". Kelsey Laurel Cramer plays Joyce, revealing the emptiness and bitterness of one who had "what it takes"—except for the capacity to turn her back on those who needed her. She leads us to wonder, was that her saving grace, or fatal flaw—or both?

Eleanor Schanilec designed costumes that are spot on for each character, and MJ Leffler's set design switches out easily between the employment agency, the backyard, and interior of Joyce and Angie's home, and of course, the fabled dinner party. The actors employ accents that seem authentic, with a range of dialects converging at the dinner party adding to the psychic cacophony of the scene—with the guidance of dialect coach Keely Wolter. Sound designer Charlotte Deranek has lined up some catchy tunes emblematic of the early 1980s that provide an aural backdrop.

It should be noted, this reviewer and my friend both had difficulty hearing all that the actors said during that rambunctious dinner party. Of course, a large part of this is by design as they continually talk over each other—much as people do in their real lives. Beyond that, though, given the traverse style staging—the audience seated on two sides of a long playing area—actors are seated at the dinner table for long stretches with their backs to part of the audience, and I fear I lost some of the witty pearls of dialogue flying among the outspoken dinner guests.

Top Girls asks a lot of its audience, that they follow the bouncing up and down of tone, track the ricocheting conversations, and can place its numerous historical, political, and cultural references. Caryl Churchill is not a playwright who makes things easy, but she does make them entertaining and provocative. Entertaining and provocative fare along with strong performances make this a production that should be seen—and then talked about.

Top Girls is the second in Theatre Pro Rata's three-play season devoted to plays by female playwrights with all-women casts. After the The Convent of Pleasure last summer and the current Top Girls, their season will wrap up with Sarah Ruhl's Orlando in March.

Top Girls, presented by Theatre Pro Rata, runs through November 21, 2021, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: sliding scale, $16.00 - $61.00. For information and tickets call 612-234-7135 or go to theatreprorata.org.

Playwright: Caryl Churchill; Director: Carin Bratlie Wethern; Set Design: MJ Leffler; Costume Design: Eleanor Schanilec; Lighting Design: Emma Kowler; Sound Design: Charlotte Deranek; Prop Design: Rachel Krieger; Dialog Coach: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: Clara Costello

Cast: Sarah Broude (Pope Joan/Louise), Ninchai Nok-Chiciana (waitress/Kit/Shona), Kelsey Laurel Cramer (Isabella Bird/Joyce/Mrs. Kidd), Maggie Cramer (Marlene), Megan Kim (Lady Nijo/Win), Nissa Nordland Morgan (Patient Griselda/Nell/Jeanine), Emily Rosenberg (Dull Gret/Angie).


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