Note: Top Girls was reviewed by Karin McKie and Kim Campbell on Women’s March weekend.
Caryl Churchill wrote Top Girls in 1982, in the middle of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979-90 fraught, pseudo-feminist tenure as Prime Minister. She explores the roles of women in the home and at work, plus their decisions about child-bearing, in the abstract and in the “real” world.
The long (2 ½ hours plus 2 intermissions) meditation, directed by Keira Fromm for Remy Bumppo, holds up to 21st century scrutiny and remains innovative in presentation. Act one is an elongated allusion, a fantasy dinner party evocative of Judy Chicago’s notable 1974-79 installation of 39 place settings for real and mythical historical women, now housed at the Brooklyn Museum. (The Chicago-born artist created the country’s first feminist art program at CSU Fresno.)
In a restaurant’s private dining room (fluid, effective set design by Courtney O’Neill), Top Girls employment agency owner Marlene (Linda Gillum) assembles Victorian explorer Isabella Bird (Annabel Armour); late 13th-century Japanese courtesan then Buddhist nun Lady Nijo (Karissa Murrell Myers); Chaucer’s obedient wife Patient Griselda (Amber Sallis); Brueghel’s Dull Gret (fierce, hilarious Aurora Real De Asua), a Flemish folklore fighter (also called Mad Meg) who led a female army to pillage Hell; and medieval Pope Joan (riveting and formidable Rebecca Spence), who headed the Church as a man for several years in the ninth century until she gave birth. She went to Rome when she decided to pass as male since “Italian men have no beards.”
The dynamic doyennes stalk, talk and quaff around the circular dining table, trading stories about the control men exerted over their lives, as did the children they bore, some of which were taken away, some killed.
Act two’s employment agency office is populated with headhunters, including Nell (Rebecca Hurd, a waitress in the previous scene) and job seekers (engaging Vahishta Vafadari, also a previous server). Marlene presides over the searching sagas, microcosms of women’s wishes: wanting to make more money, worrying about husbands, longing to be on the road, lying to get ahead. The agency visitors are looking for, well, agency.
Karin McKie asked Kim Campbell questions about their shared experience (some spoilers!). (Also, while they support gender pronoun preferences, KM and KC don’t really care themselves—they just want to be called Mx. instead of Ms.)
KM: One of Churchill’s conceits here is writing extreme dialogue overlaps, ostensibly to mimic women’s speech. Did you find that effective, annoying, or both? What was the effect?
KC: I found it both honest and annoying, which I imagine was the intent of the playwright. But it did a disservice in that we didn’t learn each woman’s story quite as well as we might have had we been able to hear more individual details.
KM: Perhaps the point, as women’s history is scarce.
KC: The device could have been used more sparingly to the same effect, and yet I appreciated the non-illusory nature of it. Who hasn’t been in a room with a bunch of power-hungry women hoping to prove their hierarchical position to one another while totally missing the point that the very competitive nature which drove them to be leaders and pioneers was a double-sided coin that also led them straight into the maul of the patriarchy?
KC: In this way, the play is still very relevant. If you are scrabbling for scraps you don’t have time to focus on the bigger picture and you only have time to model yourself on the oppressors in order to survive. Hence the need for shoulder pads in the 80s. In our era, it translates more nefariously to women battling women over who gets to call themselves a woman, and what woman is more or less advantaged or stigmatized.
KM: We saw Top Girls the day after the fourth annual national Women’s March, and two years after the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements emerged. How does this piece of feminist literature, presented by a female cast and artistic team, fit into that continuum?
KC: It shows how far we haven’t come, sadly. It is indicative of how power structures have always muscled out certain groups and will always strive to do so. The myth of playing the game to get ahead or pull oneself up by the bootstraps is a seductive one that plays out for a very tiny percentage of us, and often at a great cost to the person.
KM: You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have boots, due to economic class or gender.
KC: This was the case with Marlene, who had to give up not just the role of motherhood itself, but also a child and a part of her humanity, to thrive. Her sister was the one who called out this sacrifice as inhuman, as well as the one who had to deal with the hardship of raising the child her sister couldn’t raise.
Neither of them could step outside of the situation to notice how inhumane a system, which demands that of women, really is. Interestingly, you mentioned to me after the show that you thought this was the one incident in the play that didn’t hold up to the test of time, and I told you the story of my two younger sisters, one of whom raised the other’s child in real life.
Institutionalized violence against women is also part of the mix. Women who have historically been seen as ambitious or independent were, and are quite regularly, exposed to humiliating discrimination, sexual abuse and more in the work world (that is what the #MeToo movement sought to reveal).
Although women have gained the agency to call this out, the response has generally been to focus the blame back on women rather than to make systemic changes that would weaken men’s positions. This play definitely adds to the feminist body of work, and should give third-wave feminists reason to reflect.
KM: They are forever “bitches.” Or virgin/mother/whore. Or named by their sexuality, “The Virgin Queen,” “The Virgin Mother.” or their relationship to men in their lives, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” Did you ever notice how many leading TV women characters have male-identified first names?
What do you think the title Top Girls means?
KC: “Top girls” is probably a British school colloquialism with double meaning. The idea of the top brings to mind “top of the class” academically, but it also hints at popularity and the idea of ranking, as if a value can be prescribed to females based on their popularity and looks.
KM: And why not women? I hate calling adult females “girls.” They are women. The dismissiveness and diminution is maddening.
KC: The top girls in the play all valued themselves for various reasons – success, beauty, independence, badassery, freedom from societal norms—but it resulted in them having to attain some currency in power to do so, what the play is all about.
KM: One of my early modern literature professors reminded me about how many women’s stories never made it into culture. Women who weren’t literate, because they were prohibited from education, who couldn’t write their own stories, or who wrote them and kept them under a mattress—thank goddess for Emily Dickinson’s younger sister Lavinia, who published those poems posthumously—or women who were told to shut up. Thousands of years of women’s stories are lost forever. Do they understand why we’re enraged?
KC: The main characters all objectify themselves and sacrifice so much of their humanity to gain that small amount of freedom through power. A tragedy. What interested me is how the last word of the play comes from Marlene’s daughter Angie (also Real De Asua) as she is about to recreate that same struggle upon entering womanhood.
Angie is strong-willed and ambitious, is looking for an escape from the poverty of her assigned class. She mutters “Frightening” when she stands on the edge of that precipice, about to take her chances in the world and to meet cold, hard reality.
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s Top Girls runs at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through February 22. Tickets are available onllne or by calling 773.975.8150, and are $37.75-$47.75. Performances are Wednesday-Sunday.