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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Magical connections & remarkable storytelling in Sara Farb’s R-E-B-E-C-C-A

rebecca-cropped-no-balloonsB is for “balloon,” “birthday,” “basketball,” “band-aid.” And also “bitch.” It’s also the third letter in “Rebecca,” the shared name of the two characters in playwright/performer Sara Farb’s one-woman play R-E-B-E-C-C-A, directed by Richard Greenblatt, which opened at the Theatre Passe Muraille backspace last night.

The two Rebeccas are based on Farb’s younger sister Rebecca: one real (May, born prematurely and diagnosed as developmentally delayed when she was a small child) and one made up (July, based on Farb’s imaginings about what Rebecca would have been like if she weren’t developmentally delayed). Their lives and stories running parallel, both are celebrating their 18th birthdays – and both end up at the same summer camp (May as a camper and July as a counsellor), where these two Rebeccas connect in a fantastic and surprising way.

May Rebecca is a physically full-grown young woman, her mind frozen in time as a pre-schooler of three or four years old. The play opens with her birthday party, projected silently onscreen upstage, as she blows out her birthday candles and receives a piece of cake with a blue flower on it. The celebration is interrupted as she becomes clearly angry and stomps off camera. She enters and takes up a spot on the stairs – she’s in a time out. She wanted a second piece of cake with the pink flower and became enraged when she was denied. This is where we start to see the world through her eyes and hear her story, told in her own words.

Opposite the stairs in May Rebecca’s world is a step-like rock formation by the water at a summer camp, where July Rebecca broods about her approaching 18th birthday, recording her thoughts and feelings on a video camera. A darkly moody and sardonically funny young woman, this Rebecca takes morbid delight in her own sense of apocalypse. She is convinced that the moment she turns 18 – at exactly 4:14 p.m. – will be her last. Her impending sense of personal doom is clarified by the emerging revelation of her severe depression diagnosis.

Farb does an excellent job winding the story in and out and around the two women, the characters sharply defined and transitions smoothly executed (with movement consultation from Viv Moore). May Rebecca is playful and endearing, bright and present; a lover of Disney princesses, Sesame Street, elephants and basketball – and camp counsellor Dave. Her responses to the world are immediate, deep, largely positive and always dead honest. And her smile glows big and bright. As July Rebecca, Farb is darkly funny and Holden Caulfield-like, her biting sense of humour conjuring up mocking nicknames for the phonies who inhabit her world – except for the developmentally delayed kids, where the monikers become playfully descriptive. Drawing much of her imagery from World of Warcraft characters and themes, she compares them to Troggs – but not in a cruel way, even though she refers to them as “tards.” Like the Troggs, she sees the developmentally delayed kids as doing what they want, when they want – with no apologies and no regrets. She sees beauty in their genuine responses and individuality – and wishes she could be more like them.

As Farb notes, and July Rebecca realizes, “All it takes is something on a microscopic level to define a person’s entire existence.” And when the two Rebeccas see each other, wordlessly connecting across the space between them, there is bright light and love and beauty.

R-E-B-E-C-C-A is a magical, funny and moving piece of storytelling, allowing the audience to see and experience the world from a perspective that is rarely presented onstage – or anywhere. Get yourself out to the TPM backstage space to see this remarkable play.

R-E-B-E-C-C-A runs in the TPM backspace until March 1. You can book tickets online here.