The adage, “more things change, the more they stay the same” comes to mind when weighing British playwright Caryl Churchill’s seminal Obie-winning classic, Top Girls, which was first produced in 1982 and is now reintroduced some 35 years later at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s intimate space.
Audaciously directed by Suzanne Beal, Top Girls insightfully explores the challenges ambitious women face, circumventing gender politics in order to succeed with theatrical inventiveness and cheeky humor, mixing fact and fiction, fantasy and realism in a non-linear construct.
The play centers around go-getting career girl Marlene (persuasively portrayed by Gené Fouché), who has just been promoted to managing director of the London employment agency where she works, hosting a dinner party for five historical or fictional women. They include loquacious 19th-Century world traveler Isabella Bird (Julie Herber); plain-spoken and poker-faced peasant Dull Gret (Katie Hileman, stealing scenes with her pilfering tendencies); self-possessed Japanese Lady Nijo (Surasree Das), courtesan turned Buddhist nun; emphatic Pope Joan (Karli Cole); and fanciful Patient Griselda (Emily Raines).
As these women, all extraordinarily tenacious and stalwart in their own consummate way, drink copious servings of wine and incessantly interrupt one another, they reveal their stories and find common ground amidst corpus confusion. The party begins to turn into a mawkish mess, with triumphs being dramatically undermined by compunction.
Once the party sequence subsides, the second half of the play settles back into stark reality, following Marlene and her colleagues in their competitive life at work, and Marlene with her straightforwardly strained relationship with the sister (Herber) she left in poverty and her deeply-troubled niece, Angie (Cole, in a compelling performance) who seems to revere her to the point where she unexpectedly and inconveniently levies herself in her everyday world.
Daringly dark, unflinchingly unique and intrepidly imaginative, Top Girls is certainly not a feel-good production but, perhaps, as Beal describes, is a topical and timely cri de coeur for a world in which women do not have to make such emotionally devastating choices and the vulnerable among us are cherished.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Top Girls plays through March 5, 2017, at The Maryland Ensemble Theatre – 31 West Patrick Street in historic Frederick, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 694-4744, or purchase them online.