Caryl Churchill is lost on me, and of all her works “Top Girls” baffles me.
Now granted, I do have some distinct handicaps. I am not a woman, I am not a Brit, and if push came to shove, I’d probably prove a piss poor feminist. But just because a play flummoxes me doesn’t mean it might not be right up your alley.
And bafflement or not on my part, the Antaeus’ staging displays all the hallmarks one expects from one of the finest theatre companies in L.A., which is no small tribute in a city which boasts as many excellent companies as this town.
First a synopsis – bear with me, Churchill’s plays do amble that fine line between being “richly layered” and downright tortuous.
Marlene (Rebecca Mozo) is having a small dinner party and the guest list is rather idiosyncratic.
Isabella Bird 1831-1904 (Karianne Flaathen) author and perpetual world traveler, first woman elected a fellow to the prestigious Royal Geographical Society, arrives unfashionably early. She is soon followed by Lady Nijo 1258-1307 (Kimiko Gelman) who began life as a courtesan to the emperor of Japan and ended her days as a revered Buddhist nun, Pope Joan (Elizabeth Swain), Dull Gret (Abigail Marks) Flemish figure of folklore and subject of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s rendering of Hell, and the patiently suffering Patient Griselda (Shannon Lee Clair) a character plucked by Chaucer from Boccaccio to employ in his own Canterbury Tales and the subject of no less than four operas.
Literary and artistic creations, legendary and firmly historical characters share the table, the conversation ebbs and flows, the dialogue overlapping not quite past comprehension, but in the same zip code. This calculated callithump is not discordant twaddle, but an intricately designed grid, like the patterns of a 3-D chess set only with a couple of added dimensions tossed in.
Whatever else this opening scene is intended to accomplish, it is most assuredly a gauntlet that the playwright has chosen to fling down before the audience, challenging them to “prick up your ears and listen!”
From this surreal supper scene we move to two young girls, Angie (Marks) and Kit (Julia Davis) on a back porch somewhere in Britain’s blue collar working class south. The girls’ conversation flows from the inconsequential things young girls will talk of – who likes who in school, their dreams of escaping from where they are, to the plot of one to murder her mother.
The scene is inspired by the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder, where two young girls living in New Zealand planned and carried out the bludgeoning murder of one of the girls’ mother. The case served as the basis for Peter Jackson’s film “Heavenly Creatures”.
We learn from this scene that Angie has a glamorous aunt who lives in London, and that information will carry on into the next act.
The second act is more of a straight forward narrative and takes us to Marlene’s office at the Top Girls Employment Agency. There we are introduced to her co-worker Win (Gelman) and Nell (Clair). The name Nell in conjunction with “win” leads one to suspect a play on words where Nell is a close substitute for “nil” meaning nothing or zero. This would make sense considering the “all or nothing” world view Churchill presents.
Soon into the act young Angie arrives at the office of her aunt having fled the grim poverty of the south to seek out the glamour of London. Marlene brings Angie back to her sister Joyce (Flaathen), where it’s revealed that Marlene is Angie’s birth mother who she gave to her sister to raise. Now echoes rumble up from the opening scene of imperfect women whose imperfections are melded to the flaws of their times. Women who have all, in some fashion, sacrificed a child to their ambitions.
This brings us to a common motif in world drama since Oedipus; a child sacrificed or abandoned, a parent cursed or slain. The toll, however, has always been harsher on daughters from Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia to the Bible even.
In Abraham’s mad ambition to appease his God, Isaac was shown mercy.
The daughter of Jephthah had none.
A word of advice to aid the playgoer’s enjoyment of this work: You might just want to brush up on your British social history during the tenure of Margret Thatcher.
For in the raucous final scene personal reproaches of the characters fuse with rebukes of Thatcher’s policies, and these in turn are seemingly positioned as an indictment of the calcified ends, justified by means of failed feminist’s theory.
Churchill seems to pose to the audience the question, what good is it for feminists to succeed, if the price of that success is for them to ape the worst qualities of men?
Cameron Watson is a director of some repute, and his work here is tailor pressed with a razor fine crease. He maintains a skillful and exacting sway over the material to deliver a clarity which would be beyond the ability of a lesser director to achieve. I do question a seeming consistency in his choice of playing so much of the action in the depths of down stage. Those in my row, the third, were pressed into giraffe necking mode, in order to observe the actors at certain points.
The set by Stephen Gifford is a thing of beauty to behold, even if I found its functionality problematic. Whether a directorial choice or a production decision the actors continually appeared confined by the configuration of the stage designs. I even found myself questioning (whether rightly, wrongly or totally in left field) if there was some attempt underway of intimating a constriction on the scenes which was vaginal in nature?
Regardless of if that musing has validity or is just indicative of the private obsessions of this critic, for that to be the direction my contemplation takes must indicate some question as to the show’s staging.
Like all the work done by the Antaeus Company, this production features a double cast, the cast I saw was excellent, and I’m sure the cast I didn’t see is just as excellent.
The Antaeus Company’s willingness to produce plays of such complexity stands as a testament to their commitment to bring Los Angeles audiences works that are both entertaining and challenging.
And “Top Girls” certainly fills that bill.
5112 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood CA, 91601 (1½ blocks south of Magnolia) (818) 506-1983 www.Antaeus.org
Performances:March 13-May 4: Thursdays at 8 p.m.: March 27; April 3, 10, 17, 24; May 1 Fridays at 8 p.m.: March 28; April 4, 11, 18, 25; May 2 Saturdays at 2 p.m.: March 29; April 5, 12, 19, 26; May 3 (no matinee on Sat. March 8 or 15) Saturdays at 8 p.m.: March 29; April 5, 12, 19, 26; May 3 Sundays at 2 p.m.: March 30; April 6, 13, 20, 27; May 4
Tickets: Thursdays and Fridays:$30
Saturdays and Sundays: $34