Caryl Churchill is one of my favorite female playwrights to read. I find her work almost unmanageable onstage because of her feminist tilt and unforgiveable agenda. With that lens, I attended Bad Habit Production’s Top Girls, Churchill’s most iconic and arguably best work, featuring a strong ensemble of Boston’s top female actresses. While the play’s opening act is burdened with a lack of purpose and conflict, the second act sizzles with the perfect heat of passionate performances, incited conflict, and diverse performances. Director Liz Fenstermaker offers some subtle touches, but, for the most part, she allows her actors to bring Churchill’s (“dated”) work to stunning climax as a continuing dialogue of women’s place and dynamic in the home, in the workforce, and in society.
Top Girls begins at a dinner party hosted by the fabulous and successful Marlene (played with increasing sincerity and virtuosity by Courtland Jones), attended by historical, fictional, and mythical women, including Pope Joan, a Japanese Lady of the Emperor, Chaucer’s Griselda, and Pieter Breughel’s Dull Gret, among others. No topic is off-limits for these women, despite the swirling tempest of emotions and increasing animosity among the women, as they broach religion, children, politics, and history with vigor and experience. As mentioned, this Act 1 is almost painful to endure as a male audience member; the female actresses do a wonderful job of creating their iconic and diverse characters as both archetypes and truthful portrayals, but the play drags under the academic discussion with very little “conflict” propelling anything close to a plot. Instead, as a man, I felt forced to endure a class discussion on feminism by women who have been f’d over by the biggest d*cks of men. Fenstermaker does an adequate job of keeping the scene moving forward, but it’s ultimately unclear as to where the play is headed, even with the cast’s passionate and engaging performances. Despite these complaints, Dramaturg A. Nora Long deserves accolades for her continued success in her behind-the-scenes work, especially by infusing this production with the truthful expertise of study and hard work. Crystal Lisbon’s work as Dialect Coach is also top-notch as accents bounce across the stage with consistency and sharpness.
And from the wreckage of Act 1, we emerge into the awesome and powerful Act 2, which sparkles with the perfect blend of passion, educated discussion, and thematic discourse. Yes, Churchill works on multiple levels, and Fenstermaker and her cast achieve remarkable success by performing the play on the visceral and the intellectual levels, simultaneously. Brava, ladies. Act 2 and Act 3 occur between an employment agency and Joyce’s home, creatively designed in the intimate Hall A of the Boston Center of the Art’s black box by Scenic Designer Shelley Barish. Here, we are treated to three-dimensional portrayals of women in various parts of their lives. The stand-out performance is by Jones as Marlene, a woman with everything to offer but seemingly nothing gained because she sacrificed everything to earn the “top job” at an employment agency. Equally successful is Janelle Mills as Joyce, a run-down mother of Angie, a difficult girl played with some skill (but much annoyance) by Catherine Buxton. Mills excels in her scenes with Jones, especially their final scene which reveals some of the sacrifices that each character made during her life, and the ramifications of these decisions.
The success of Bad Habit Productions’ Top Girls is rooted in Fenstermaker’s ability to create real and purposeful relationships. Every conversation and interaction feels engaging, and every character feels like she has a goal to reach and an obstacle to overcome. These dynamics create exciting theatre because the actors believe in the stakes. Mills and Jones throw accusation and history back and forth to each other, but it’s their moments of kindness and familiarity that add context and depth to their relationship. Buxton’s Angie and Shanae Burch’s Shona have an interesting relationship, though they seem burdened by the task of playing “young” and “immature” that uproots their success as characters, making them into caricatures most of the time, especially Angie. Unfortunately, many of the other actresses seem like strong cameos in their “modern day” characters, a product of Churchill’s focus rather than a commentary on any of their individual acting talents or abilities. Gillian Mackay-Smith is particularly compelling as Louise, a forty-six year old woman who has devoted everything to her job with very little to show for it, and Caroline Price is arched and poised as Nell, but neither seem to be full characters to last beyond their respective scenes.
Ultimately, Top Girls is an important show with difficult dramaturgical elements, which Bad Habit Productions struggles to dominate in order to command respect from the dated show. The production succeeds on many levels in Acts II and III, and commends high respect because of its use of a female cast and almost entirely female production crew. However, it’s tough for this male reviewer to get on board with Churchill’s difficult and preachy Act I, and blips of cameo characters in Acts II and III.