Top Girls is Top Notch Feminist Theater

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L to R, Linda Park as Lady Nijo, Karianne Flaathen as Isabella Bird, Sally Hughes as Marlene, Rhonda Aldrich as Pope Joan and Etta Devine as Dull Gret

Few women playwrights have garnered as much praise and generated as much controversy as Caryl Churchill. Her work has been called feminist, post-modern, post-colonial, Marxist, experimental, irritating, innovative, ludicrous and brilliant. She has worked with feminist collectives such as Monstrous Regiment and at establishment institutions such as the Royal Court Theatre, where she was the first woman to hold the position of resident dramatist. In both spaces, she has maintained her dedication to dismantling sexist, economic and colonial power structures through an ever-evolving exploration of dramatic form. Though she is still writing today, her early plays are already considered part of the Western canon.

Unfortunately, being included in the dramatic canon does not ensure that your plays will get produced on contemporary American stages, and even theaters devoted to producing the classics often avoid Churchill. This may be partly because she didn’t win inclusion in this elite, mostly male club by being one of the boys. If the traditional dramatic form, which proceeds in a straight line from exposition to climax, can be said to be “masculine,” Churchill’s writing is the epitome of the “feminine”: circular and multi-climactic. Likewise, if a masculine form can be said to be concerned with the individual protagonist’s psychological experience, Churchill’s feminine structures deliberately de-center the individual in order to explore identity as a product of social and historical forces.

Churchill’s style, then, requires more of actors, directors and audiences than the typical canonical play. Yet a classical theater in North Hollywood, CA, has taken up the challenge: The Antaeus Company is running an engaging and highly relevant production of Top Girls through May 4.

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Flaathen (left) as Mrs. Kidd, Hughes as Marlene

Top Girls, which premiered in 1982, is best known for its opening act, during which an ambitious woman, Marlene, throws herself a dinner party to celebrate a work promotion. Her guests are historical and folkloric figures: Lady Nijo, a 13th-century Japanese concubine; Isabella Bird, Victorian world traveler; Patient Griselda of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Dull Gret, from Breughel’s painting of the same name; and Pope Joan, a medieval female Pope. The second act takes place largely in the employment agency where Marlene works. The third is set a year earlier in Marlene’s sister’s living room.

Though Churchill originally wrote the play for 16 women actors, practicality led the first director, Max Stafford Clark, to have seven actors play all the roles. This doubling, which is almost always replicated and is being used in the Antaeus production, creates resonances between the historical and mythical characters of the first act and the women of the 1980s in the second and third acts. Despite centuries of supposed progress, these women face similar oppressions, from violence committed to unequal marriages to limitations on their ability to earn money and live independently.

The resonances don’t stop with the 1980s. Churchill, whose feminism is deeply rooted in socialism, says Marlene, an ambitious, upwardly mobile Thatcherite, was inspired by a visit to America, where for the first time she encountered a capitalist feminism designed to enable women to climb the corporate ladder. In Act Three, when Marlene tells her sister, who has not escaped the poverty in which they were both raised, that she “doesn’t believe in class. Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes,” the audience can hear not only the politics of Thatcher and Reagan, but also the voice of crusaders such as Sheryl Sandberg , who even today insist that the only thing keeping women out of leadership positions is their lack of ambition.

Not only are the women of Top Girls limited in their economic aspirations, but they also struggle with patriarchal conceptions that pinhole them as domestic creatures rather than as autonomous human beings. In Act One, Isabella Bird recalls that being at home made her physically ill; she was only happy while traveling. Her Act Two counterpart, played by the same actor, has dedicated herself to being a housewife, and is therefore left helpless when her husband’s ability to earn a living is compromised. In Act Three, that actor’s third character is abandoned by her husband and trapped in the small town in which she grew up, living out the same miserable existence that her mother did. Even the maid job she is forced to take is domestic. The audience cannot help but think of contemporary marriage proponents such as “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton, who urge women to subvert their own interests and ambitions in favor of finding a husband, thereby risking their abilities to ever care for themselves on their own.

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Flaathen (left) as Joyce, Hughes as Marlene

Finally and perhaps most frustratingly, Top Girls shows that, despite centuries of progress, women still do not have complete control over whether and when to have children. In the first act, Lady Nijo, Patient Griselda, Dull Gret, and Pope Joan all have their children taken from them. Joan, not having received any sex education, had not even realized she was pregnant until she gave birth in the street. The professional women of Act Two have had to give up having children entirely in order to succeed in the corporate world. And in Act Three, we discover that Marlene had a child but gave it to her sister to raise, enabling Marlene to earn money and enjoy her freedom while her sister remained stuck at home. Today, lack of access to family planning and childcare continue to make successfully balancing work and motherhood far too difficult for far too many women.

Nevertheless, many producers worry that Churchill’s plays, unlike the plays by men in the canon, are dated. Nothing could be further from the truth. The clear design, crisp direction and excellent acting—the accents in particular deserve note—of the Antaeus production mine Churchill’s script for its full potential so that the audience is constantly bringing the content into the present. Unless the issues Churchill addresses in this play–income inequality, lack of reproductive freedom and paternal conceptions of women as the weaker sex–have been solved and I didn’t notice it, Top Girls is nothing if not topical.

Photos by Daniel G. Lam

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