Important and Relevant “Top Girls” opens at Renaissance

Cassandra Bissell and Elyse Edelman in Top Girls

Women as the victims of men!

Donald Trump. Harvey Weinstein. Matt Lauer. Garrison Keillor.

The list of men accused of some form of harassment (mainly sexual) has trust women into a brave movement, “Me Too,” standing up to the victimization from powerful men.

That framework makes “Top Girls” by the brilliant Caryl Churchill even more relevant as it runs at Renaissance Theaterworks and running through the end of April.

Make no mistake about it, this play is not easy to sit through, with a complex cast of characters and a timeline that moves in a seemingly backward direction.

After seeing the sparkling production opening night and then reading the play, my recommendation is that rather than trying to make sense of who is who, it’s better to just listen to the words – to what one woman says to another.

Director Suzan Fete has a very difficult play to stage, but she has an abundance of very special tools, a cast of seven actors who bring experience, sensitivity and intelligence to their jobs – many of the actors playing more than one character.

The seven women who make up this cast are Libby Amato, Cassandra Bissell, Grace DeWolff, Elyse Edelman, Mary MacDonald Kerr, Karissa Murrell Meyers, Jenny Wanasek and Rachael Zientek.

The play opens with a fantasy sequence, a celebration lunch hosted by Marlene (Ms. Bissell) who has just been appointed managing director of the employment firm (Top Girls) where she has worked for years.

Here are the imagined guests at this celebration as taken from the script:

Isabella Bumn, (Ms. Wanasek) lived from 1831 to 1904 in Edinburgh and travelled extensively between the ages of 40 and 70.  

Lady NIJO (Ms. Murrell Myers), born in 1258 and was a Japanese emperor’s courtesan and later a Buddhist nun who travelled on foot through Japan.

Gret (Ms. Zientek)  is the subject of a Brueghel painting “Dulle Oriel” in which a woman in an apron and armour leads a crowd of women charging through hell and fighting devils.

Pope John (Ms. MacDonald Kerr) was disguised as a man and is believed to have been Pope between 854 and 856.

Patient Griselda (Ms. Wolff) is the obedient wife whose story is told by Chaucer in “The Clerk’s Tale” of the Canterbury Tales.

The lunch sets the theme for all of the story, six women, each with different stories, each having battled through men and been hurt by them, each competing with the others to have their story be the most important, vivid and memorable.

Watching the action on the stage, with women talking over each other, with small groups all talking at the same time,  my mind spun trying to follow the action. It’s clear that sisterhood is not always about equality as these women are just as capable of competition as men. 

Mary MacDonald Kerr as Pope John in Top Girls

The stories, though are riveting for a brutish truth relieved by some of the funniest dialogue you’ll ever hear.  Ms. MacDonald Kerr’s story of being a gender faking Pope, taking a chamberlain as a lover, getting pregnant, delivering a baby during a papal parade and being stoned to death rushed the audience with laugh after laugh after laugh.

I thought I was getting fatter, but then I was eating more and sitting about, the life of a Pope is quite luxurious. I don’t think I’d spoken to a woman since I was twelve. The chamberlain was the one who realized I was a woman. I didn’t want to pay attention. It was better to do nothing. JOAN. I didn’t know of course that it was near the time. It was Rogation Day, there was always a proces­sion. I was on the horse dressed in my robes and a cross was carried in front of me, and all the cardinals were following, and all the clergy of Rome, and a huge crowd of people./ We set off from St Peter’s to go to St John’s. I had felt a slight pain earlier, I thought it was something I’d eaten, and then it came back, and came back more often. I thought when this is over I’ll go to bed There were still long gaps when I felt perfectly all right and I didn’t want to attract attention to myself and spoil the ceremony. Then I suddenly realized what it must be. I had to last out till I could get home and hide. Then something changed, my breath started to catch, I couldn’t plan things properly any more. We were in a little street that goes between St Clement’s and the Colosseum, and I just had to get off the horse and sit down for a minute. Great waves of pressure were going through my body, I heard sounds like a cow lowing, they came out of my mouth. Far away I heard people screaming, “The Pope is ill, thope is dying.” And the baby just slid out onto the road. One of the cardinals said, “The Antichrist!” and fell over in a faint.  Then they took me by the feet and dragged me out of town and stoned me to death.”

Ms. MacDonald Kerr who has created magic on Milwaukee stages does it again, with her mitre wobbling on her head and her papal gowns aflow. It’s one of the funniest moments I’ve seen all season.

The opening scene sets the stage with a kind of confusion that left me breathless, but the real power came barreling on with the introduction of Marlene’s sister Joyce (Ms. Amato) and Angie (Ms. Edelman), the slow and dysfunctional daughter of Joyce.

There are surprises with these three and the final scene between the two sisters, one worldwise and the other world weary, has a force and brutal passion that made me hope for a merciless ending.

“Top Girls” is not an easy play to watch and it requires concentration, but it is everything a great play should be, smart, passionate and oh so relevant to the world we live in.

PRODUCTION CREDITS:  Director, Suzan Fete; Assistant Director, Ashlee Elder; Stage Manager, Veronica Zahn; Assistant Stage Manager, Bailey Wegner; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons; Scenic Designer, Stephen Hudson-Mairet; Projection and Assistant Scenic Design, Julie Algrim; Lighting Designer, Sarah Hamilton; Props Designer, Madelyn Yee; Costume Designer, Amy Horst; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Assistant Dialect Coach, Rick Pendzich; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner.


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