Everyone tries to cope with the ordinary drudgeries of their lives, some do better than others when it comes to success with their coping skills. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls attempts to illustrate that point as Fells Point Corner Theatre. Directed by Richard Barber, the play, classified as a contemporary drama, explores the notions of female success in the working world. Known for its bizarre opening dream sequence where the show’s protagonist encounters women of great historical import, the show’s curious semi-linear plot structure draws parallels between these historical women and Marlene’s life as is it is revealed to the audience. Picking more iconic successful women from history as to the slightly more obscure ones referenced in the work would give the show’s opening scene a broader spectrum of relatability.
Despite the play lacking cohesive connections and strong motifs (that aren’t blatantly splattered asunder for the sake of existing), Director Richard Barber coaxes exceptional performances from his small cast of females; truly astonishing moments of emotional connection radiating from one character. Handling the dream sequence as something to be gotten through, Barber pushes the pacing in this scene creating a frenetic sense of chaos. Characters’ speeches overlap heavily early on and build into a cacophony of drunken maudlin nonsense, creating aural dissonance as the dinner is initially meant to be celebratory.
It’s the intricate relationships that Barber coaches between characters that keep the play interesting. The bitter tensions between Marlene and Joyce or the unspoken intimacy between Angie and Kit; all of which transcend the multiple roles each woman, save for Marlene, plays. Barber’s coaching in regards to the accents is quite polished. The opening sequence achieves success because each of the female performers creates an accent that matches her geographical location in history.
Master of the accent realm is actress Cori Dioquino, playing the Japanese Concubine turned Monk Lady Nijo. Dioquino brings a sassy, albeit haughty, flare to this character with her self-important monologues that border on the edge of vapidly narcissistic. Appearing later as Kit, the slightly underclass English pre-teen and then later still as Nell, the Welsh Scottish girl with a flawless take on both accents, Dioquino’s personalities shift according to her dialects; an impressive feat of using vocal concepts to construct multiple characters.
Dull Gret (Helenmary Ball) delivers both the height of comedy and disturbing tragedy in the dream sequence. Ball approaches the character’s monosyllabic articulacy with distinguished determination, making the handful of words she is given really land hard with the audience, often resulting in hard laughter. Once Ball’s character grips into the harrowing speech that nearly closes out the scene, all eyes are transfixed upon the transformation from muttering mostly-silent character to full-on raging emotional vent. Ball is again seen later in the performance as Mrs. Kidd, an equally emotionally captivating moment that really expresses heavy-handed bitterness.
Switching from a prim polished English sound to something harder with a crass edge can be tricky but the switch is well executed by Annette Mooney Wasno when she leaves historic explorer Isabella Bird behind in favor of Louise a down and out working girl who just wants to be one of the boys. With strongly focused accents similar to Dioquino’s work, Wasno hones the existence of her characters around these vocal sounds. The urgency and desperation for both of her characters lives and breathes in her interpretation of their dialects.
Marlene (Robin Zerbe) is the one constant throughout the production. Never shifting into another character, Zerbe does find ways to allow her rather reserved character to shift and grow; inadvertently undulating through a series of subtle transformations that are mostly tension driven. Showdown style scenes between Marlene and her sister Joyce (Tessa Blische) are loaded with palpable discomfort and ugly family history that rears its head when least expected. It’s Zerbe’s interactions with both Blische and the young daughter character Angie (Anne Shoemaker) that keep the audience mesmerized and intrigued by her story.
Shoemaker becomes a show stealer with her dynamic portrayal of Angie. Starting off as the bitter teenager whose life is consumed by angst and moodiness, Shoemaker showcases a stunning transformation in reverse as her timeline is presented out of chronological order. Shoemaker takes a vivid physical approach to Angie’s childlike innocence and naivette in scenes from her past; open and accessible. These cleverly articulated nuances create a clashing juxtaposition against her closed off and guarded physicality as a rebellious teenage girl.
The acting is what is extremely impressive in Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production and the women involved in the show keep the audience entertained for the ride.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Top Girls plays through April 27, 2014 at the Fells Point Corner Theatre— 251 South Ann Street in historic Fells Point in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 276-7837, or purchase them online.