‘Top Girls’ helps Re­nais­sance Theater­works cel­e­brate 25 years

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

In play­wright Caryl Churchill’s mind, be­ing a suc­cess­ful woman in a “man’s world” is a dif­fi­cult, of­ten con­tra­dic­tory and ul­ti­mately messy process that doesn’t al­ways yield the de­sired re­sults.

Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls em­bod­ies that phi­los­o­phy in its con­tent, spirit and, es­pe­cially, its struc­ture.

The play also tops the 25th sea­son for Mil­wau­kee’s Re­nais­sance Theater­works, which de­fines it­self as “theater by women for ev­ery­one.”

“I have wanted to pro­duce Top Girls for years and our 25th sea­son seemed the per­fect time for Churchill’s con­tem­po­rary mas­ter­work,” says Suzan Fete, co-founder and artis­tic di­rec­tor for Re­nais­sance. “The play ad­dresses the past, present and fu­ture of gen­der pol­i­tics.”

Churchill, born in Lon­don in 1938, is best known for the sur­re­al­is­tic nar­ra­tives and fem­i­nist themes found in her plays. Top Girls, which won a 1982 Obie Award for best play, was the first one to steer away from nat­u­ral­ism and into a more fan­tas­ti­cal realm.

In­ter­views have noted that Churchill was heav­ily in­flu­enced by U.S. fem­i­nists, who worked for in­di­vid­ual equal­ity and achieve­ment, as op­posed to Bri­tish fem­i­nism, which was more so­cial­ist in na­ture, op­er­at­ing in sup­port of greater equal­ity for women as a group. Top Girls’ chief pro­tag­o­nist shows the in­flu­ence of those con­ver­sa­tions.

The play, which runs April 6 to 29 and is di­rected by Fete, has a non­lin­ear struc­ture, much of which re­volves around the char­ac­ter of Marlene (Cas­san­dra Bis­sell).

A ca­reer woman to the core, Marlene has been re­cently pro­moted to head of the Top Girls em­ploy­ment agency over a male con­tender also vy­ing for the po­si­tion. Marlene is the kind of take-no-pris­on­ers pro­fes­sional who em­bod­ies some of the least em­pa­thetic char­ac­ter­is­tics of her male coun­ter­parts.

“All the char­ac­ters in Top Girls have suc­ceeded by em­brac­ing the cul­tural norms and strate­gies for suc­cess com­mon to male-dom­i­nated so­ci­ety,” Fete says. “Of course, they be­have like men — and, im­por­tantly, not nice men.”

Many of those char­ac­ters come to­gether in an open­ing se­quence in which Marlene hosts a din­ner party for a group of no­table women drawn from his­tory and lit­er­a­ture. Group mem­bers air their griev­ances and, in some cases, de­fend their ac­tions as the only al­ter­na­tives avail­able to them at the time.

The guests in­clude Pope Joan (Mary MacDon­ald Kerr), who leg­end has it oc­cu­pied the Holy See dis­guised as a man from 855 to 857. Her gen­der ul­ti­mately was re­vealed while giv­ing birth dur­ing a holy pro­ces­sion. She died — or per­haps was mur­dered — shortly there­after.

Other guests in­clude Dull Gret (Rachel Zien­tek), a char­ac­ter drawn from artist Pi­eter Breughel’s 1563 paint­ing “Dulle Griet” and Lady Nijo (Karissa Mur­rell Myers), a 13th cen­tury Ja­panese con­cu­bine. Also join­ing are Pa­tient Griselda (Grace DeWolff), a char­ac­ter from Chaucer’s The Can­ter­bury Tales and Is­abella Bird (Jenny Wanasek), a real-life, 19th-cen­tury ex­plorer, au­thor and nat­u­ral­ist.

“All of the guests at Marlene’s fan­tasy din­ner party have made tremen­dous per­sonal sac­ri­fices to reach ‘top-girl’ sta­tus,” Fete says. “Churchill’s char­ac­ters are real and fic­tional, they cross cul­tures and cul­tural val­ues and span cen­turies. Through them we see the strug­gle of women through­out his­tory to have the same choices avail­able to men.”

As the din­ner party wears on, the women be­come drunker and more bois­ter­ous, be­hav­ing much like the ill-man­nered male coun­ter­parts they de­plore.

The fi­nal scene, Fete says, is a “fright­en­ing”

‘The char­ac­ters in Top Girls have suc­ceeded by em­brac­ing strate­gies for suc­cess com­mon to male­dom­i­nated so­ci­ety.’

de­pic­tion of what the fu­ture holds for Angie (Elyse Edel­man), iden­ti­fied as a dull girl with­out much of a fu­ture by Marlene’s sis­ter Joyce (Libby Amato), with whom Angie lives.

The fi­nal scene ac­tu­ally hap­pens in a time pre­vi­ous to the mid­dle sec­tion, which chron­i­cles Marlene’s rise within the em­ploy­ment agency. But the scene’s big re­veal helps au­di­ences bet­ter un­der­stand the price that women had to pay, at least in the 1980s, to suc­ceed in a man’s world.

“Sud­denly, Marlene, who at the be­gin­ning of the play was a sort of hero, the per­son we’re root­ing for, the per­son we’re pro­ject­ing our­selves onto, has be­come some­one that we’re not sure we’d re­ally like to em­u­late,” Fete says.

“The play’s cen­tral theme con­cerns our obli­ga­tion to the least of our so­ci­ety,” the di­rec­tor adds. “An in­di­vid­ual’s achieve­ment should be mea­sured along­side the huge in­equities that co­ex­ist in so­ci­ety. As long as we have so many An­gies in our midst, we can’t fully cel­e­brate the Mar­lenes.”

De­spite the fact that the play is 34 years old, the ba­sic in­sights hold up re­mark­ably well, ac­cord­ing to Fete. The tra­di­tional role of fem­i­nist, as de­fined by Churchill and oth­ers, is as rel­e­vant today as it has ever been, she adds.

“A fem­i­nist is de­fined as an in­di­vid­ual who be­lieves that men and women should have equal rights and op­por­tu­ni­ties,” she ex­plains. “I think there is plenty of ev­i­dence that so­ci­ety has not moved be­yond need­ing fem­i­nists. The Women’s March and the #MeToo move­ment are just two ex­am­ples.”

The na­ture of the play’s end­ing, too, points out just how much work there is to be done, says Fete.

“Since Churchill has al­ready shown us the dim prospects for Angie’s fu­ture, the end­ing is in­ten­tion­ally un­set­tling in that it re­fuses to al­low the au­di­ence to fan­ta­size a sen­ti­men­tal fate for Angie and peo­ple like her,” Fete ex­plains.

Suzan Fete.

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