Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Top Girls
Shotgun Players

Also see Patrick's reviews of Rita Rudner at Feinstein's at Hotel Nikko, The Pirates of Penzance and Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter, Eddie's reviews of West Side Story and Hay Fever and Richard's reviews of Matilda and As Long As I'm Singin'

Kendra Lee Oberhauser and Rosie Hallett
Marlene has just been promoted to Managing Director of an employment agency, and she decides to give herself a celebratory dinner—at least in her dreams. The dinner that consumes act one of Caryl Churchill's Obie-winning Top Girls is a feast like none most has ever seen, on stage or in real life. Invited are five historical, mythical, and fictional women from the Middle Ages to the 19th century who share remarkable life stories, differing views on religion, sad accounts of their children's fates, and life's overall, lingering regrets—all while heartily eating and drinking in multiple courses. In her expensive, stylish dress and six-inch heels, Kendra Lee Oberhauser's Marlene greets as old friends the women who arrive in kimono, papal robes, warrior outfit, world traveler khakis, and lady-at-court gown (via the superb designs of Heidi Hanson). With the telling seemingly more important to all than being heard, multiple conversations tend to occur at the same time so that no one (including the audience) often hears very much. A word or phrase overheard of one tale often initiates the beginning of another's story while the first either continues or fades away unfinished. Ninth century Pope Joan asks Marlene, "Do you follow?" when Marlene seems blankly puzzled by the Pope's religious analogies. "No, but go on," says Joan as she abruptly turns to focus on another tale being told simultaneously.

As Marlene ensures that everyone (especially herself) drinks plenty of wine, the mood becomes increasingly maudlin as the women shift from remembering their accomplishments and begin focusing on what those accomplishments cost them (through things like long separations from loved ones, deaths of children, or even their own deaths). While Dull Gret, a sword-wielding figure of a 1562 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, describes leading other village women into the boughs of hell, the party begins to disintegrate as each woman realizes she too ended up in that same hell—one usually created by the men on her life's canvas.

Acts two and three are slice-of-life vignettes where what is said is more important to the play than what actually happens (which is, regrettably, not much). The two acts alternate between scenes at Marlene's sister's house, where live her abrasive, angry niece Angie of 16 (Rosie Hallett, once Dull Gret) and her harried mom Joyce (Danielle Cain, once Isabella the world explorer) and scenes at the employment agency where Marlene is now a junior executive. At the office, various women applicants arrive looking for jobs where Marlene and her two headhunting assistants Win (Jessma Evans, once peasant made lady-in-court) and Nell (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, once Pope) tend to grill them about marriage plans, possible pregnancy, and age issues (acting more like typical males than understanding members of the same sex). Also arriving is the unhappy, rebellious niece Angie who wants Aunt Melanie to relieve her of her terrible mother Joyce. To understand how we got to this point, act three goes back one year to serve as a harbinger for a number of probable, negative turns in the future lives of Marlene, Joyce, and Angie.

Since the first bites of act one in this well-acted, well-directed (by Delia MacDougall) presentation of Caryl Churchill's disjointed script, it has become more and more obvious that being a successful woman in a man's world may come only with major sacrifices of a family and self-happiness. Real fulfillment for the women we meet seems to come only when acting like a man (e.g., being a genius woman dressed as man who becomes Pope, traveling the wild world of 1800s ships and caravans and facing every disease and accident possible with total relish, or leading an army into hell itself). When the decision is to "stand by my man," like a 13th century Japanese concubine or a Middle Ages peasant-turned-Lady-Marquis, the rewards are repeated rape or tortured anguish over lost children. Sitting together, Marlene's imagined women even resort to male behavior, dismissing without much interest or sympathy any but their own woes and troubles, and retiring self-absorbed at the end of their party to brandy snifters.

The patterns continue for Marlene and Joyce. Joyce has undertaken responsibilities of traditional caregiving of elder parent and child and has long ago given up any hope of ever leaving her poverty or small-town status (or even having an occasional night on the town). The more successful Marlene—as evidenced by world travel, promotion, and possessions—has little time for anyone she considers weaker, has little idea how to show compassion except by presents (rather than her presence), and yet also begins to ascertain that she too is failing in some of life's other important ventures dealing with love, family, and parental obligations.

Top Girls is certainly not an optimistic prescription for how today's women can be happy, fulfilled "top women." Ms. Churchill does begin the conversation, but she expects us to make connections among her disparate scenes and to conclude what we believe needs to change. Since she wrote this play in 1982, much has changed, and yet too much has stayed the same (e.g., unequal pay for women compared to men, low percentages of women in executive and board rooms, etc.).

This is a play where reflective after-thoughts and follow-up conversations are hopefully better than the experience of actually sitting through the two-and-a-half hours of not much happening, of scenes abruptly ending without rhyme or reason, and of characters coming and going that in the end we really do not care that much what has or will happen to them. Shotgun Players has mounted a brilliantly produced revival of Top Girls, and it is probably an important play that needs to be seen by today's audiences. However, enjoyable it is not (except maybe the intriguing, but long act one). Unfortunately, too many people may not have the patience to wade through all three acts (as occurred the night I attended) in order to get to the needed after-conversations.

Top Girls has been extended until August 9 at Shotgun Players, The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets are available online at or at 510-841-6500.

Photo: Pak Han

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Eddie Reynolds

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