The Johns Hopkins University Theatre Arts and Studies Program certainly took a risk this weekend with its production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.
The play, albeit abstract, is a powerful two-act work highlighting the triumphs and tribulations of working women in the late 20th century. While the story could easily be lost among a less knowledgeable crowd, the seven-women cast of John Astin’s production and their vivacious, snappy banter brought energy and life to the tiny Merrick Barn Theatre in ways that casts of hundreds could not.
Churchill’s play follows its main character Marlene (senior Victoria Bata) a British businesswoman in the early 1980s. She rises to a position of authority in her employment agency during a time when British working women faced copious amounts of discrimination.
Marlene’s successes dumbfound her less qualified coworkers and place unspeakable strain on her sister Joyce, but shrewd-minded Marlene never backs down. Churchill’s deft hand does a phenomenal job of showing both the pros and the cons of the “working woman’s” life, and whether or not Marlene makes the right choice to pursue her dreams remains open to audience interpretation.
While the plot seems straightforward and the themes clear-cut, it’s easy to see where the play could get lost in its far-reaching symbolism and its snappy, argumentative banter. Characters talk over one another. They argue, they cry, they stand up and scream, they cut each other off and more often than not, three conversations take place at once.
In addition, the play is famous for telling a very linear story in the most nonlinear, nonconventional fashion possible. In particular, the play’s opening scene, where Marlene imagines that she has dinner with some of history’s most influential women, is so abstract that viewers may not understand it at all until the end of the play. They may even give up and leave before they even get that far.
The significance of this dream sequence remains a confounding mystery until the middle of the second act, where a “feminism v. traditionalism” theme officially emerges through Marlene’s conflicts with her sister Joyce (junior Sarenka Smith). The play flashes back and flashes forward so often that it’s hard to tell where the characters are in time.
However, what could easily become nonsensical, anachronistic noise in a 100-seat theatre was nothing short of brilliant, all thanks to the ever-adventurous director Astin and his tireless female cast.
There was no chance of anyone walking out this weekend. How could you, when the famed Astin himself stands in front of the crowd in a holiday cardigan, clumsily fumbles to turn off his cell phone in an attempt to get us to do the same, and passionately introduces his show? The play was heartfelt even before it began.
Churchill’s messy dialogue, while it could have easily descended into white noise, was nothing short of harmonious; the girls deftly kept the audience hanging onto every quick-moving word in what could only be described as true theatrical dexterity. The emotion and the energy they evoked through their impeccable timing radiated from the stage, fascinating and captivating the crowd.
Smith, acting as both Joyce and the dense Isabella Byrd, was the unequivocal crowd favorite. She was dynamic; though her two characters were poles apart in personality, her sharp facial expressions, piercing eyes and biting, no-nonsense delivery lit up the stage regardless of the character portrayed. Her versatility, wit and unmistakable talent left the audience in awe.
However outstanding Sarenka was, she did not carry the show. The entire cast displayed such animation and emotion that, even if the audience did not understand the first abstract scene, they were enthralled by it. The way the cast illuminated an otherwise minimalist stage was unbelievable, and the realities of feminism rang loud.
Top Girls is a must-see, for feminists and non-feminists alike, especially when directed and performed by such skilled technicians as the Johns Hopkins University Theatre troupe.