Top Girls

The costs and difficulties of female ambition are examined in this staging of another Churchill play

Caryl Churchill seems to be the soup of the day: Crowded Fire is offering a cup-size production of Top Girlsto go with the Berkeley Rep's bowl of Cloud Nine (see above). Churchill wrote both plays in the years around 1980, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, and when a character in Top Girls mentions her by name you realize Thatcher's political presence -- her era of conservatism, her grocer's-daughter pluck -- informs the entire play. Marlene is a London professional rising fast in the Top Girls employment agency. Her sister Joyce is a poor housewife stuck in their hometown, raising a girl named Angie. They haven't seen each other in years because of a bitter secret, which Angie wants to unravel. The play looks at the costs and difficulties of female ambition in the late 20th century, but starts with a dinner featuring prominent women from the last 1,200 years: Pope Joan ("thought to have been pope, disguised as a man, between 854-856"), the Japanese Lady Nijo, and Chaucer's Patient Griselda, among others. The dinner is the most interesting but also the weakest part of the production; Rebecca Novick's uneven cast does better with modern girls than it does with obscure historical ones. But the modern scenes are nicely paced. Juliet Tanner does sharp work as Kit, a rude and scrappy lass who won't let Angie dominate her; Cassie Beck is also charming as Angie, and Mollena Williams does a smooth, professional Win, who works with Marlene (actually under Marlene) at Top Girls. The dense, maybe overlong script is stronger than Cloud Nine, and it still holds up as a portrait of a changing society, even if Margaret Thatcher is gone.

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