Theatre Pro Rata’s latest play is a marvel of construction and ideas. I’ve found myself thinking about the subject matter long after I would normally have started writing. Top Girls is a play written by Caryl Churchill and set in Great Britain in the early 80’s. It examines the roles available to women in our society at that time and what the cost of success can be. It looks at the subject matter by comparing and contrasting it with women from the past and by showing us various women interacting with each other. All characters that appear in the play are female but the male perspective is not entirely absent. It is felt in the way the characters behave and react to their circumstances. Sometimes they are showing us what they have to do in order to make it in a still heavily Patriarchal society, at others we see them model the same patronizing attitudes they hate from men towards each other. It is a play full of complex characters that showcase the ambiguities of humanity – an important work that challenges the audience to keep up. Unfortunately, this production of an amazing script stumbles at times to translate the ideas beyond the stage to those of us in the theater seats. It’s not a bad production, there is a lot to like here and it’s a rare opportunity to see this classic of modern theatre performed. I urge you to attend and I’ll try and give you some pointers on how to get the most out of it.
The play opens in a restaurant. We see Marlene who is here to celebrate her promotion as head of the Top Girls Employment Agency. She is joined by women from the past both historical and fictional. They proceed to converse and eat, each of the women relating their experiences, the scene written and performed in such a way that the dialogue overlaps. We might not catch everything that’s said, as is often the case at a larger dinner party, with conversations happening at opposite ends of the table. Although all this isn’t occurring in the real world of the play, but is a representation of an idea being played out: “What if you could have dinner with anyone from history?” This is an interesting way to begin the play, showing us the roles and experiences of women through time. I like this idea of creating the atmosphere of the dinner party, and it seems to me by the end that in many ways these various women were different aspects of Marlene and the other characters, but unfortunately this opening scene is also where the production falters.
Firstly, the stage is set in the middle of the theatre and there are chairs on both sides for the audience. The problem with Director Carin Bratlie Wethern’s staging the production like this is that if you are not micing your actors, much of the dialogue is inaudible. I got there a little later than I like to and so was seated to the side, but I was still in the second row and it isn’t a large theatre. The character of Pope Joan for instance was seated with her back to me for most of the scene and even though she was the closest to me I rarely could make out her dialogue because she is talking in concert with other characters and speaking away from me. This happened with multiple characters. The second issue with the scene is that it isn’t clear what is happening here.
Partly due to lost dialogue, this concept of a fantasy dinner takes much too long to really become clear. There needed to be some way to convey that this was not reality up front. An example perhaps of the value a Director’s note in a program can add. The costuming also would have been a way to make clearer who these women were from the start. While the costumes by Eleanor Schanilec convey the idea of who these people are, this is an area where more would have sold the idea to the audience a lot faster. Thankfully, after this scene and a short one right after it that features two young friends talking, the staging and audibility issues were largely eliminated. The play is told nonlinearly with the final scene being the earliest chronologically, it’s revelations affecting how we view Marlene and the earlier scenes. After the opening scene rest of the play is set in the real world and involves Marlene and the other employees at Top Girls, as well as clients, Marlene’s sister Joyce, her niece Angie and her friend Kit.
Aside from needing to project more to compensate for the staging, the entire cast does a great job, most of them essaying multiple roles, with the exception of Maggie Cramer in the lead. The stand out for me was Emily Rosenberg, who played Dull Gret in the opening dinner scene. Rosenberg spends most of the scene delivering one word answers, so when they climb up on the table and talk about marching into hell, the entire audience took note. It is a speech delivered with power and backed by the surprise of it’s unlikely source. Rosenberg also plays the niece Angie who, in some ways, is an extension of Dull Gret. In both roles they find a way to surprise us, and in a play very focused on ideas, they provide the emotional in for the audience. Maggie Cramer as Marlene and Kelsey Laurel Cramer as her sister Joyce have a brilliant interaction in the final scenes where our sympathies change. It really is a brilliant script. The cast is rounded out by Megan Kim and Nissa Nordland Morgan as the employees of Top Girls, with Sarah Broude and Ninchai Nok-Chiclana as clients in little vignettes illustrating the complexities of these women: their roles, their strengths and their weaknesses – at times supportive of each other, at times cruel and petty. Kelsey Laurel Cramer has a scene as the wife of the colleague that Marlene beat out for head of Top Girls. We see her try to help her husband, certainly a kind gesture, but without realizing that in doing so she is making the argument that women don’t matter as much as men. It’s such a pleasure to see a play where even a five minute role has nuances and shades of character that some main characters don’t have in other plays.
Top Girls is worth your time. It will make you think and make you questions things, including, by the end, what you thought of the first half. Top Girls runs through November 21st at the Crane Theatre in northeast Minneapolis. For more information and to purchase tickets click here https://www.theatreprorata.org/. I recommend getting there early, seating is General Admission. I’d suggest sitting front row dead center if you can manage it. Hopefully with that placement and a heads up of what is happening in that first scene you will really be able to key in from the beginning.