Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

Jordi O’Dael (Gret), Jennifer Fahy (Patient Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (Isabella Bird), Tea Nguyen (Lady Nijo). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its timely, updated production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last night, directed by Alysa Golden, assisted by DJ Elektra. Sharp-witted, illuminating and theatrical, Top Girls is a both an observation and commentary of women’s lived experiences across the ages. Written in 1982 and given a contemporary framing in this production, it’s both funny and sad how little has changed for women in terms of opportunity, oppression, and the expectations of the spaces they occupy and the roles they play—a timely undertaking in the age of #MeToo and #timesup.

We open on a fantasy dinner party, hosted by Marlene (Alison Dowling), who is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests include the fastidious Victorian world traveller Isabella Bird (Lisa Lenihan); 13th century Japanese concubine and material girl Lady Nijo (Tea Nguyen); Gret, the coarse, lusty subject of Breughel painting “Dulle Griet” (Jordi O’Dael); the esoteric, philosophical Pope Joan (Charlotte Ferrarei); and the unquestioningly obedient Griselda, from Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” (Jennifer Fahy). The women share stories of love, marriage, motherhood, travel, oppression and hardship as they eat, drink and descend into drunken stupor.

Shifting into present day, we meet Marlene’s niece Angie (Rebekah Reuben), who lives in the country with her mother, Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nyiri Karakas), and spends most of her time with best friend Kit (Naomi Koven), who is several years younger. More than just a handful of a teenager, Angie is troubled, young for her age, and adrift in her life; mistrusting and disrespecting of her mother, she dreams of getting away and learning the truth about herself.

We get a glimpse of the Top Girls employment agency, populated by female recruiters, the office abuzz with Marlene’s upcoming move to her own office and greater things. Not everyone is thrilled, however, and a male colleague’s wife Mrs. Kidd (Lenihan) pays a visit to protest his being passed over. Marlene’s colleagues Win (Claire Keating) and Nell (Grace Thompson) interview prospective recruits— including a couple of ambitious, vague 20-somethings (April Rebecca) and an overlooked, undervalued 40-something (Peta Mary Bailey). Angie arrives on the scene, having gone AWOL from home and inviting herself to stay at Marlene’s.

Jumping a year into the past, Marlene visits Joyce and Angie—tricked by Angie with an invitation that supposedly came from Joyce. The family dynamic of estrangement between the estranged sisters comes into focus, as does a life-changing family secret.

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Naomi Koven (Kit), Nyiri Karakas (Joyce). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Lovely work all around from this considerable, all-female cast, with several actors playing multiple characters. Stand-outs include Dowling as the sharp, bold and unapologetic Marlene, who’s executed some major shifts in her life to get where she is, in spite of the naysaying and resentment from family and male colleagues. Reuben is both exasperating and poignant as the immature, lost Angie; like her mother, we come to worry for her future—she can’t hide out and play in the backyard with her little friend Kit (played with sweet, wise child energy by Koven) forever. Karakas brings a home-spun rural edge to the gruff, worn-out Joyce; unlike Marlene, who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, Joyce stayed in their hometown to raise Angie.

Keating and Thompson make a great pair as the gossipy, snippy and ambitious Top Girls recruiters, interviewing their respective prospects with the impervious attitude of entitled gate keepers. And O’Dael brings both great comedy and drama as Gret, with her hearty appetite, lust for life and hair-raising tale of her campaign against the demons of Hell.

Golden’s theatrical, multimedia staging is both technically effective and dramatically compelling, as scenes shift from fantasy to reality, and present to past—Teodoro Dragonieri’s set largely constructed from doors, an apt image for the production. Scene changes feature a spritely young Dancer (a confident, mischievous and willowy Estella Haensel); and Viv Moore’s elegant, expressive choreography is playfully and tenderly accompanied by Richard Campbell’s sound design. Projected backgrounds (projection design by Madison Madhu) mark the change of space and passage of time, form urban to rural, and light to dark.

While the lives, times and stories of these women vary dramatically, crossing a broad range of lived experience, the themes of class, female identity and male entitlement emerge as common threads. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is comic in its tragedy that, in 2019, half of the world’s population is still held back, to varying—and sometimes violent and criminal—degrees, from achieving its full potential. On the upside, we see these women persevere and push back—breaking rules and shattering expectations to thrive and live their dreams.

Top Girls continues this weekend on the Alumnae mainstage until February 2; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only).

The run includes a pre-show Panel “Women, Power and Success in the Age of Me Too” on January 24 at 6:30 pm; and a post-show talkback with the director and cast on January 27.

Check out the trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

Department of corrections: The original post misnamed the lighting designer as Jan Hines in the two photo credits; it’s actually Jay Hines. This has been corrected.

A delightfully witty stab at the upper class in Alumnae’s charming, entertaining The Importance of Being Earnest

Sean Jacklin & Nicholas Koy Santillo. Set design by Marysia Bucholc. Costume design by Margaret Spence, with associate Peter DeFreitas. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

The Alumnae Theatre Company goes Wilde with its charming, entertaining production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green—opening last night on Alumnae’s Mainstage. Set in 1895, this beloved Wilde classic adeptly and hilariously satirizes the British upper class; and is so full of well-known razor-sharp witticisms, it’s a veritable cornucopia of Wilde’s greatest hits.

Best friends Jack (Nicholas Koy Santillo) and Algernon (Sean Jacklin) are wealthy young bachelors about town—wicked enough to be modern, but not so much that they’re criminal. That’s about to change, as Jack is smitten with Algie’s cousin Gwendolyn (Kathryn Geertsema) and has his mind set on proposing. But, although Jack and Gwendolyn are mutually agreed upon the prospect, they must get permission from her imperious mother Lady Bracknell (Tricia Brioux); and they hit a major roadblock when Jack is questioned about his parents, of whom he knows nothing, as he was a foundling. Scandalized at the thought of her daughter marrying a man who was found in a handbag as an infant, Lady Bracknell orders Jack to find evidence of his ancestry—a condition of her giving her blessing to the match.

If that weren’t enough, Jack is living a double life: he is Jack in his country home, where he is the responsible guardian of his 18-year-old ward Cecily (Laura Meadows), but goes by the name of Earnest in town. So Gwendolyn believes his name is Earnest—and has romanticized the name to the point that she believes it to be a vital ingredient to marital bliss. And to make matters even more complicated, Jack has created a fictitious wicked younger brother named Earnest, a relation only mentioned by that name when he’s in the country.

Earnest couples
Left: Kathryn Geertsema & Nicholas Koy Santillo. Right: Laura Meadows & Sean Jacklin. Set design by Marysia Bucholc. Costume design by Margaret Spence, with associate Peter DeFreitas. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

The engagement on hold, Jack returns to his country home to try to sort out his birth, his name and kill off his fictitious brother. He enlists the aid of Rev. Chasuble (Rob Candy), the affable and learned local minister who enjoys taking his regular constitutional over to the house to visit Cecily’s prim, exacting governess Miss Prism (Tina McCulloch). They are surprised by an unexpected guest: Jack’s brother Earnest! Of course, it’s really Algernon, out for a bit of fun and longing to meet Cecily, who also happens to adore the name Earnest; and the two hit it off nicely and become engaged on the spot. And when Gwendolyn arrives, curious about the engraving she saw in Jack’s cigarette case (from Cecily), the two women face off over who is, in fact, engaged to Earnest. Chaos and confessions ensue; and with the arrival of Lady Bracknell, a revelation. All great fun and hilariously sending up the upper echelons of British society, with Algernon’s wry-witted, deadpan housekeeper Lane (Lisa Lenihan) and Jack’s understated, watchful Merriman (Barbara Salsberg) witnessing the tomfoolery of their supposed betters from the sidelines.

 

The cast does a great job with the crisp, rapid-fire dialogue—so full of quotable bon mots, it’s easy to get caught up in the rapier wit shenanigans. Koy Santillo and Jacklin are perfect foils as Jack and Algernon; an odd couple pair of best friends, with Jack (Koy Santillo) being the somewhat more responsible and respectable, and Algernon (Jacklin) being more slapdash and careless. And Geertsema’s sharp, independent-minded Gwendolyn and Meadows’ romantic, precocious Cecily are not only well-matched to their respective boy; they share a highly entertaining two-hander scene, their proper high society manners a thin veil to the steely, take-no-prisoners resolve to win Earnest—only to become BFFs when they learn about the boys’ hijinks with the name Earnest. And Brioux is an impressive, commanding presence as the fastidiously precise, domineering Lady Bracknell; her cutting pronouncements and withering glances as the formidable dowager earned a round of applause on her exit near the end of Act I.

 

tricia in earnest
Tricia Brioux. Set design by Marysia Bucholc. Costume design by Margaret Spence, with associate Peter DeFreitas. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde at his wittiest, satirical, make fun of the upper class best—and the Alumnae team does him proud. With shouts to the stunning period costumes designed by Margaret Spence, with associate Peter DeFreitas; Marysia Bucholc’s trim, ornate and highly efficient moveable set, illuminated by lighting designer Liam Stewart; and Rick Jones’ period-perfect sound design. All held together by the intrepid SM Margot Devlin.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until October 6. Get advance tickets online, by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 or at the door (cash only). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Sunday at 2:00 pm.

The run includes Post-Show Talkbacks following the Sunday matinees on September 23 and 30; and a Pre-show Designer Panel on September 27 at 6:30 pm. (this one comes with snacks). Check out the fun trailer:

 

And check out this interview with actor Tricia Brioux in the Beach Metro Community News. Keep up with Alumnae Theatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

New Ideas: Alternate perceptions, unexplained events & magical connections in the haunting, hilarious, heartfelt Week 2 program

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 30th annual New Ideas Festival (NIF) of short new works last week; the three-week festival presents a different program of plays each week, plus staged readings on Saturdays at noon. I caught the Week Two program up in the Studio last night.

Sweet Mama and the Salty Muffins by Ciarán Myers, directed by Kendra Jones. Haunted by a catchy Appalachian folk song that sends her back to the moment her three-year-old daughter disappeared at an outdoor concert, a mother (Lisa Lenihan) tries to make us see the sense of her account of the inexplicable aftermath of the event. Do we believe her? Is it all in her mind?

Lenihan is quirky and heartbreakingly lonely as the mother in this 15-minute solo piece. Desperate for someone to believe her and neurotically self-conscious of sounding mentally ill, the mother is confident in what she saw. And she realizes it sounds beyond strange and impossible, but she believes it with all her heart. Maybe because she has to.

If Socrates were in My Shoes by Donna Langevin, directed by Carl Jackson. Set in 1930, Jean (Nicholas Koy Santillo), who’s gained fame as a daredevil, meets down on his luck writer George (Andreas Batakis), who’s working as a cook to pay the bills. George is despondent over not being able to find a publisher for his book and Jean suggests a death-defying stunt to get publicity: going over Horseshoe Falls in a barrel. How far is George willing to go to self-publish his book?

Nice work from the actors in this metaphysical dramedy. Santillo brings an affable charm and cockiness, with a touch of con artist, to Jean; a man with a wife and six kids to feed at home, Jean does what he needs to do to make ends meet. Batakis gives George an interesting combination of melancholy and driven, earnest and fanciful, pensive and desperate. There’s an air of dark, edgy mystery around George. What is the true nature of his intense relationship with the teachings of Socrates?

Stars by D.J. Sylvis, directed by Gillian Armstrong. Two lives revolve around each other thousands of miles apart in this lovely, cosmically magical two-hander. Akia (Alexa Higgins) and Ren (Katherine Cappellacci) have never met, but they’re falling in love in a long-distance relationship as they gaze at the stars during a cellphone conversation.

Playing out this beautifully tender, funny and heartbreaking romance—all in 15 minutes—Higgins and Cappellacci have great chemistry, complementing each other perfectly with this pair of opposites. Higgins is a starry-eyed romantic as the astronomy nerd Akia; and Cappellacci is earthy and cynical as the sci-fi dork Ren.

Moving On by Elmar Maripuu, directed by Helly Chester. Kyle (Michael Ricci) has a brilliant software idea and Shelley (Lena Maripuu) is helping him find an investor. Trouble is the investor she’s putting forward is under suspicion of absconding with Kyle’s small home town pension fund. This problem of conscience is comically compounded by the appearance of Jodie (Rachelle Mazzilli), Kyle’s high school sweetheart.

Equal parts hilarious and heart-wrenching, this three-hander cast does a great job. Ricci’s Kyle is a visionary, and also loyal, good-humoured and sweet. He longs to bring his plans to fruition, but is torn about aligning himself with the man who may have swindled his friends and family back home. Maripuu is a big bundle of madcap fun as Shelley; possessing boundless energy and talking a mile a minute, there’s more than meets the eye as we get a glimpse into Shelley’s past and secret desires. Mazzilli is adorably irreverent and cocky as Jodie; playfully seductive, Jodie isn’t quite sure what’s up with this visit with Kyle. Are old fires lighting up again or are they just riding a wave of memory?

The Week Two program also includes a staged reading on Saturday, March 17 at noon, followed by a talkback. Mirage: The Arabian Adventures of Gertrude Bell by Laurie Fyffe; featuring actors Fallon Bowman, Rosey Tyler, Saphire Demitro, May Tartoussy, Arun Varma, Ethan Saulnier, Sean Dwyer, Matthew Olivier and Erin Humphry.

The NIF Week Two program continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until March 18. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturday (with a post-show talkback) and Sunday at 2:30 pm. Check out the Week Three program, running March 21 – 25.

It’s a very popular festival and an intimate venue, so advance booking is strongly recommended. In the meantime, check out the Week Two trailer by Nicholas Porteous: