Top Girls
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Nell, Jessma Evans as Win, and Kendra Lee Oberhauser as Marlene in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the Ashby Stage. Photo: Pak Han

Shotgun Players has scored a bit hit with Caryl Churchill’s 1982 drama, Top Girls.

The Obie award-winning, superbly written Top Girls takes place in London and environs at the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister (1979-1990), when her Conservative Party emphasized individual success and achievement, as opposed to the protection of all segments of society through labor unions and government social programs. Although it’s a play about women, Top Girls is essentially asking all of us to think about the nature of the society we favor, for men and women.

It’s not an easy play to direct, yet Delia MacDougall’s direction makes Top Girls sparkle, especially in the phenomenal first act. As the play begins, we are at a restaurant where Marlene (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) is giving herself a party to celebrate her promotion to managing director at the “Top Girls” employment agency at which she works. Her guests are fictional, mythical and historical women. Each of them has lived in a different stage of development of women’s rights, and each has suffered in her world ruled by men. It’s as though Marlene sees herself as the culmination of this progression of women.

The legendary Pope Joan (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) was doing a fine job masquerading as a male pope in the 800s (and the food was fabulous, she says) until she gave birth, and was immediately stoned to death. Lady Nijo (Karen Offereins), was born in 1258 and lived her life as a concubine to the Emperor, until he threw her out. Yet, she accepts as her destiny his harsh treatment and the terrible loss of her children.

Patient Griselda (Jessma Evans) came into prominence when Chaucer (1342-1400) adapted her for a story in The Canterbury Tales called The Clerk’s Tale. Griselda had been chosen to be the wife of the Marquis, even though she is only a peasant girl. He mandates one condition, that she must always obey him. He puts Griselda through terrible trials, including giving up her children, yet she accepts her husband’s actions.

Top Girls. Photo: Pak Han
Aily Roper as Kit and Rosie Hallett as Angie in Shotgun Players’ production of Top Girls. Photo: Pak Han

Dull Gret (Rosie Hallett) is an image from a painting by Pieter Breughel (1525–1569), in which a woman wearing an apron with armor, helmet, and sword leads a mob of peasant women into Hell, fighting devils. Isabella Bird (1831-1904), played by Danielle Cain, spent her life traveling the world and wrote books about her adventures, leaving her “beloved” sister at home in Scotland.

Most of the dinner guests have had children, though many children died, were killed or were taken away from their mothers. The women’s conversations are fascinating. They are also portrayed quite realistically. As more wine is poured, they joke and giggle together. They talk over each other and several discussions are conducted at once. Quite a marvelous first act.

In the non-sequential second and third acts, we learn more about Marlene, her work environment and her family. In Act Two, Scene One we meet Angie (Rosie Hallert) and her younger friend Kit (Aily Kei Roper). Angie, though 16 years old, is immature, a bit aggressive and none too bright. She and her mother Joyce (Danielle Cain), who is Marlene’s sister, get along poorly.

With Scene Two, we are at the “Top Girls” Employment Agency where Marlene and her co-workers trade gossip and interview job candidates. It becomes clear that women who chose career over a personal life are unhappy, but those who bring their personal life front and center will not be offered the better opportunities. And then guess who shows up at the agency? Angie.

The third act takes place one year before Act Two, during one of Marlene’s infrequent visits back home. Marlene and Joyce argue about their lives, with Marlene mirroring the Conservative Party’s view of life and Joyce being repelled by Marlene’s coldness. It’s a powerful confrontation, as only those between sisters can be.

The cast of Top Girls is uniformly excellent; there are no small performances. Subtle aspects of the first act reverberate throughout the play as the actors from the dinner party play modern-day parts in the final two acts. Churchill very effectively weaves her leitmotifs into all aspects of the drama. Top Girls is Shotgun’s finest production of the season to date. By all means, go see it.

Top Girls is playing at the Ashby Theater through, August 2, 2015. For information, tickets and extended performance dates visit Shotgun online.

Want to know what else is going on in Berkeley and nearby? Visit Berkeleyside’s new-look Events Calendar. Submit your own events for free if they aren’t there already — and give them featured status for as little as $10 a day.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...