The Barnard theater department’s production of “Top Girls” puts a new spin on Caryl Churchill’s 1980s play that never feels out of step with contemporary reflections on the responsibilities of being a woman.
Directed by Mikhael Tara Garver, the play examines the costs of success and how women have grappled with them throughout history. From a dreamlike dinner party with prominent historical women to 1980s England—a volatile time period colored by class warfare, Thatcherism, and lingering workplace sexism—“Top Girls” examines challenges women have faced over time.
Garver’s interpretation of Churchill’s script uses the dinner party that opens the play as a framework for the rest of the production, making members of the ensemble into waiters who offer the audience finger food between acts. Additionally, each act is labeled in the program as a separate course, allowing a clever context for the reinterpretation of the work’s discourse.
The party’s host is Marlene (Katrina Eroen, BC ’14, in her senior thesis performance), an acerbic and career-driven woman who is central all three acts of the play. She arranges it to celebrate her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency.
The attendees are a historical melange of notable women, including Victorian explorer Isabella Bird (Maria Diez, CC ’15) and Pope Joan (Danielle Carlacci, GS ’14, also in her senior thesis performance), the woman rumored to have led the Vatican in the ninth century while dressed as a man.
All of the principal actors but Eroen reappear as multiple characters who interact with Marlene. With help from dramaturge and dialect coach Jeremiah Matthew Davis and costume designer Marina Reti, the cast manages to fully realize their various characters.
For instance, Carlacci transforms from lofty pope to naïve teenager, trading her refined accent and papal robes for a country dialect, faded sweatshirt, and jeans. Despite garb and time periods, both characters must reconcile who they are with who the world expects them to be. Carlacci meets the challenge through her physicality, standing on tables and jumping on sofas. At points, the lines between woman and child are blurred.
As Marlene, Eroen masterfully oscillates between playfulness, bitterness, and vitriol. As the play unfolds, the audience learns that hearing about her dinner guests’ experiences causes Marlene discomfort because it makes her relive the painful decisions of her own life.
The set—designed by Elsa GibsonBraden, BC ’14, as her senior thesis in design—evolves along with the actors. In the first act, ensemble members enter and exit through layers of white curtains. Mike Inwood’s lighting design contributes to an already ethereal atmosphere, with the set seeming to glow. For the second act, the curtains are stripped away to reveal an office, suggested by a panel of doors and a checkered ceiling with fluorescent lights. Sound technician Will Pickens’ clever use of typewriter sounds during set changes makes the transitions fluid, although his use of rock music was a bit jarring at times.
“Top Girls” effectively reflects upon the same issues that Debora Spar explores in her book, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” Under Garver’s direction, a strong cast and inventive scene design keep the prescient play about “having it all” from feeling stale. The subhead of Spar’s book could be tacked onto Churchill’s play had she written “Top Girls” today.
“Top Girls” will be performed in the Minor Latham Playhouse in Milbank Hall at 8 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are $5 with a CUID.