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.

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Dangerous desires, conflicting memories & a questionable verdict in Village Players’ dark, haunting Tainted Justice

Katherine Anne Fairfoul, Chris O’Bray & Rob McMullan. Set design by Alexis Chub. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by Dave A. Fitzpatrick.

 

Did an American drifter or family secrets kill the town innkeeper? The Village Players opened their production of Don Nigro’s Tainted Justice, directed by Victoria Shepherd, at their home in the Village Playhouse last night.

Set mostly in 1914 Cape Breton, Tainted Justice criss-crosses time and space, taking us through memory and past events to such varied places as the Klondike and Winnipeg in the years leading up to 1914. Estranged from her mother Tena (Katherine Anne Fairfoul) and uncle Bill (Rob Candy), Pearl (Jess L. Callaghan) returns home to Cape Breton looking for answers. Haunted by the events surrounding her innkeeper father Ben’s (Dennis Mockler) death, Pearl is determined to learn the truth—especially regarding evidence brought to light during the subsequent trial against the inn’s American guest Frank (Chris O’Bray), who was defended by Pearl’s cousin Jim (Andrew Batten), a local celebrity lawyer. Frank was found guilty and executed. What was the nature of her mother’s relationship with the accused? And who was really responsible for her father’s death?

Through a series of conversations, moments and witness stand testimony, we learn that Frank wasn’t a stranger to Bill or Tena when he arrived in Cape Breton. But there are conflicting accounts of when and where they met him—and the coincidences of Frank just happening to meet up with them in various locations across the U.S. and Canada are dubious to say the least. As the story unfolds, we see a seedy, dark underbelly emerge among this close-knit family in this quiet town—revealing hidden suspicions, and hinting at forbidden relationships and dangerous desires. Only Jim’s quiet, sweet wife Maudie (Peta Mary Bailey) and the calm, steady Crown prosecutor Hearn (Rob McMullan) seem to be immune from the dark influences of lust and family loyalty at all costs.

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Andrew Batten & Peta Mary Bailey. Set design by Alexis Chub. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by Dave A. Fitzpatrick.

This play has everything: greed, lust, murder, family secrets. And Shepherd and the cast do a great job weaving past and present, memory and dream, and complex relationships in this true Canadian crime drama. Stand-outs include Batten’s cocky but amiable Jim; a gifted defender and eloquent orator, Jim’s drinking habit and laissez-faire approach to life mask a deeply troubled soul. O’Bray does a lovely job, both charming us and keeping us guessing about Frank; a mercurial, cheeky and well-read man with a flair for storytelling, Frank is a teller of tall tales at best and a con man at worst. A drifter and opportunist with a non-violent criminal record and at least four wives back in the States, like Jim says, Frank’s not the kind of guy you’d want marrying your sister. But is he a murderer?

Fairfoul’s Tena is a seductive cypher, also keeping us on our toes. Intelligent and beautiful, Tena is an ambitious businesswoman whose deepest desires run beyond real estate. There’s an edgy desperate housewife vibe and a dark air mystery about her. Did she bewitch Frank into doing her bidding? And Candy’s Bill is a complex combination of affable generosity and raging jealousy. Bill clearly loves his sister Tena very much and would do anything for her, including introducing her to the man who would become her husband (the murdered innkeeper Ben). But what exactly is the nature of that relationship—and are those feelings mutual?

With shouts to the design team for their work on bringing the past and present worlds of this haunting period crime drama to life on the small Village Playhouse stage: Alexis Chubb (set), Livia Pravato-Fuchs (costume), Jamie Sample (lighting) and John Stuart Campbell (sound and music composition). And to director Shepherd for orchestrating the multiple interwoven scenes and relationships as the characters traverse time and place.

Tainted Justice continues at the Village Playhouse until March 24. Advance tickets available online or by calling 416-767-7702. In the meantime, be sure to check out the promo video on the show page, featuring director Victoria Shepherd.