Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ ponders feminism and femininity
By Adam Tatelman, Contributor
These days, “feminist” is a word that gets thrown around like it were an accusation. While there are some radically opinionated man-haters in the world (let’s accept that stereotypes are inspired by vocal minorities), it would be a colossal mistake to classify Caryl Churchill’s decidedly pro-feminist magnum opus Top Girls as propaganda for the so-called “ball-busters.” We must remember that the roots of the movement came from a desire for equality, just as the other contemporary movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s championed racial and homosexual rights. Top Girls invites us to consider that, despite the progress we’ve made towards that ideal, the experience of being a woman is still fundamentally different from that of being a man; that gender politics are only less visible today than in years gone by, yet no less common; throughout history, successful women have been forced to sacrifice things for their prosperity that men never have.
I can talk philosophy until we both fall asleep, but none of it means anything without the context of this performance. The adaptation of the play to the Douglas College stage is a thought-provoking one, as this wall of text attests. I thought something was going wrong when I heard the sound booth’s cues before the first act began; however, there was a reason for this. According to comments by director Claire Fogal, the performance took cues from the somewhat surreal theatre of German playwright Bertolt Brecht; the play—dreamlike and already non-chronological—breaks its own fragile illusion of reality by allowing set and costume change in plain sight, making the stagehands part of the act. Historically, the point of this was to allow the audience to become emotionally attached to the events of the play and then shatter their catharsis, instead encouraging them to become critical observers and consider the reasons for the tragedy instead of just crying over it. Brecht (and Fogal, it seems) wants us to leave the theatre with the intent to change the order of things. Unconventional? Yes. Effective? Definitely.
Although the second act of the play shares the surreal qualities of the opening dream sequence, Marlene’s (Meghan Sommerville) slumberland dinner party reaches a sublime level of simple yet surreal visual spectacle. Projections against the set fade in and out, morphing the setting like a plant growing in fast-forward. A restaurant becomes a sea voyage becomes a campfire becomes the mouth of Hell, as both the dream and the dreamer reach a chaotic fever pitch. I give major props to the Department of Stagecraft for taking us into the troubled mind of Marlene by way of the Salvador Dali express.
When the chronology of a play is written deliberately out of order and a third of it is a symbolic dream, the performances must be able to string us along for the journey. In a Wizard of Oz-esque spin, each actor pulls double duty in both the dream realm and the waking world. Coworkers and family members fade in and out of their personas, becoming famous feminist figures such as Pope Joan (Laura Genshoreck), Isabella Bird (Paula Broderick), Dull Gret (Fatima Namatovu), Patient Griselda (Nadia Bordignon), Lady Nijo (Angie Hennig), and one symbolic, sisterly Waitress (Stephanie Webb). Watching each actor change their voice, body, and character on stage in the span of seconds was a treat unto itself. Each character, while sharing similar tragedies to Marlene, is distinct and well individualized. Their stories are unique, and yet they are all part of the same point of view.
Caryl Churchill and Claire Fogal want us to consider the conditions and traditions that force us all to be a certain way and ask, “Why not change?” I saw Top Girls and now I’m asking that question, and if I can inspire one person to see this performance and get curious themselves, then I will be content in the fact that I’m working towards a solution. (That’s your cue.)