Review: ‘Top Girls’ at Keegan Theatre

Only the indubitable Caryl Churchill could, in a play about a contemporary dysfunctional British family, give us an opening restaurant scene that includes the likes of:

  • Dull Gret (a warrior peasant woman from Breughel’s famous painting),
  • Pope Joan (the fictional woman who served as Pope for a few years during the Middle Ages),
  • Lady Nijo (a Japanese historical figure, and concubine to Emperor Go-Fukakusa who later became a Buddhist monk),
  • Isabella Bird(the 19th-century British travel writer)
  • Patient Griselda(the fictional folk woman who swears obedience to her marque).
Caroline Dubberly, Jessica Lefkow, Alexandra Palting, Amanda Forstrom, Karina Hilleard. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

But that’s both the genius of Churchill and the raging success of Keegan’s current production.

You might wonder why such a first act exists: only Marlene, the cool as frozen tripe manager of a London-based employment agency, returns for acts two and three.

Any sensible playwright, or producer, would cut those women of history and fiction out of a fairly naturalistic play about feminism and class.

But Caryl Churchill knows what she wants, and Director Amber Paige McGinnis knows what she has.

So, with an opening act that rocks with ego and overlapping dialogue and grotesque caricature, when the realism sets with its equally vivid, yet profoundly disturbed characters, we in the audience accept the mythology of our own perceptions.

Caroline Dubberly & Daven Ralston. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

We accept the falseness of our own declarations of truth.

We accept the battleground called life.

The previously mentioned Marlene, played like an Iron Lady by Karina Hilleard, runs an employment agency where Win, played with gusto by Alexandra Maria Palting (who also plays Lady Nijo), and Nell, played flirtatiously by Amanda Forstrom (who also plays Patient Griselda). They find jobs for various women, one of which is Louise, an older woman played by Jessica Lefkow (who also plays the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin Pope Joan).

It turns out that Marlene has a working-class sister, Joyce, played with weather-beaten grit by Susan Marie Rhea (who also plays the upscale Isabella Bird).

Her teen daughter Angie, played with psycho-real hostility by Caroline Dubberly (who also plays Dull Gret), camps out in the backyard of her “ghetto” apartment with her pre-teen friend Kit, played with bubbly stubbornness by Daven Ralston (who also plays a host of other characters).

It turns out that there is no love lost between Marlene and Joyce.

Susan Marie Rhea. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

It turns out that women, despite whatever commonality contemporary identity politics espouse for them, have as many differences among them as among the men in their lives that in this play we never see.

It turns out that Caryl Churchill’s endlessly provocative play about the difficult choices women make, and the tragic consequences that ensue, couldn’t be more timely.

With fascinatingly effective set design by Matthew J. Keenan and eye-popping costumes by Alison Samantha Johnson, Keegan’s production of Top Girls is delightfully disturbing.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with two 10-minute intermissions

Top Girls plays through December 2, 2017, at Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

Previous articleReview: ‘The Pajama Game’ at Arena Stage
Next articleReview: ‘Origin of Species’ at The Strand Theater
Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.