‘Top Girls’ helps Renaissance Theaterworks celebrate 25 years
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.