Questioning the role of women in 'Top Girls'

Jenna Fields (as Dull Gret) and Emily Zinski (as Pope Joan) in 'Top Girls.' Photo: Michael Davis Top Girls Who Syracuse University Drama Department Where The Storch Theatre, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse When Through Feb. 24 Tickets: $16-18 Review by Eesha Patkar

Where does a woman’s success lie? Is it in the cutthroat trenches of corporate careers, or in the daily humdrum of a white-picket fenced house? Can the two ever meet? When Caryl Churchill’s feminist play Top Girls first came out in 1982, it asked a familiar question: Can women, like men, balance a job and a family? Two decades later, the answer still eludes many.

SU Drama program’s adaption of this play couldn’t have opened at a more perfect time.

While every concerned citizen around the world takes up the dialogue of female empowerment, eight young women on stage delve into the quandaries of modern womanhood in one of the most eloquent plays ever written.

As the dulcet tones of Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” fills the stage, Marlene (Mary Ann Pianka) strides in, hair coiffed and heels clacking, barking orders to a young waitress (Raven Gabrielle Perez) at a swanky restaurant in 1980s London. She anticipates the arrival of a mix of friends to celebrate her coveted promotion in the workplace. The first one on the scene is the spirited Isabella Bird (Alyssa Castellano), afemale globetrotter—rare in the 19th century.

Lady Nijo (Sumiko Cohen), a 13th century Japanese concubine is next, followed by Dull Gret (Jenna Fields), the Flemish woman-warrior who pillages Hell in Pieter Bruegel’s 1562 Renaissance oil painting. The robust Bird and the delicate Lady Nijo are full of stories; often overlapping each other while Dull Gret steals plates and cups in her rustic apron.

The arrival of Pope Joan (Emily Zinski)—the only female pope from the Middle Ages—and Patient Griselda (Whitney Crowder)—a tortured, obedient wife from the tales of Chaucer and Petrarch—complete Marlene’s guest list. Of course, more overlapping conversation ensues.

In this dreamscape dinner of Marlene’s mind, Pope Joan off-handedly recounts how she pretended to be a man during her papacy, only to be discovered when she unexpectedly gave birth during a holy procession (“Women, children and lunatics can’t be popes”). Lady Nijo blithely chirps away about her honor of serving as the emperor’s prostitute.

The raucous Bird has less grisly but equally intrepid tales of adventure to tell. Even Gret, the quietest and coarsest, with her random interjections of “Those bastards!” finally divulges her gruesome invasion of the nether world in a climactic outburst, sword pointed at the sky and her face twisted in a primal rage.

The underlying lament of this collective group of heretics, whores and savages is the same: It sucks to be a woman. Abject as their conditions are, they are the defiant rebels of history. Whether they try to be man-like or woman-like, they are still victims in a patriarchal world. The realization of this fact dissolves the excitable dinner mood into a tense one, and we slip out of Marlene’s fantastical reverie to the present where she sits alone, still impeccably coiffed, pondering her loneliness.

Mary Ann Pianka (as Marlene), Jenna Fields (as Angie) and Chessie Santoro (as Mrs. Kidd) in 'Top Girls.'Photo: Michael Davis

In the followings acts, the production’s skilled actors shed their valiant historical roles and return to the present. Lady Nijo becomes Nell, and Griselda turns into cool cat Win playing Marlene’s co-workers in an employment agency. Acting out such temporally different roles is not an easy task, but this cast of Top Girls handles it well, for the most part.

Marlene is still Marlene, coaching young, unemployed women to find well-suited occupations. But she finds herself facing a big challenge when her frantic, runaway niece Angie (formerly Dull Gret) arrives at her doorstep in hopes of a job after an awful row with her mother, Joyce. The character of sonorous Isabella Bird comes fluidly to Castellano, but Joyce, the quiet sister of Marlene, is less natural. Her mother-daughter altercations with Angie are stiff and clunky, but Castellano redeems herself only during the final screaming matches with her sister.

Fields’ transformation from a barbaric sword-wielder to a 16-year-old manic-depressive interpretation of Angie is unsettling. She is hysterical, conniving and vapid all at once, and perhaps the most complex and vulnerable character in the play. Angie’s hatred of her mother’s seemingly dull and hollow country life, juxtaposed by her ardent desire to emulate her aunt’s fabulous working lifestyle suggests the real dilemma of the feminism issue in this play. Is Marlene, for all her high-powered, competitiveness better than the reluctantly nurturing and desperate Joyce? Both sisters are ultimately unhappy.

Watching the ‘80s through Top Girls is like watching the ‘60s through Mad Men. Women still hate each other unconsciously, and the ways in which they articulate that hatred is galling. When Mrs. Kidd (Chessie Santoro) – a disgruntled co-worker’s wife – approaches Marlene and applies to her feminine sensitivity to step down from her promoted status to allow her rejected husband to rise ahead, I felt my hackles rise. The heated exchange that follows is nothing short of a regressive verbal foreplay to a catfight.

Churchill’s message in Top Girls was a simple one, born out of response to first-wave feminism. The empowerment of women needs to take a social tone, and less of an individualistic one. Feminism following in the footsteps of a masculine model leaves gaping holes in its wake. The historical characters swapping tales in the merry fashion of drunken revelry in Act I depict this most poignantly, as the women become mirror images of the very men they revile.

SU Drama’s production of Top Girls is animated, emotional, nuanced and well-enacted, but only begins to scratch the true essence of it.