By Claire DeMarco, ‘Burgh Vivant
A stimulating dinner with guests requires guests who are stimulating. And to ensure a successful dinner party, Marlene (Kauleen Cloutier) creates a get-together with a fantasy group of diverse females in Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls.” This make-believe meeting celebrates Marlene’s promotion as the Director of Top Girls, an employment agency, after winning the job over a male co-worker.
The women attending this meeting of the minds are a combination of real and fictional women from the past. Isabella Bird (Leah Hillgrove) is an explorer, a naturalist, a writer and photographer. Lady Nijo (Jillian Lesaca), a Japanese concubine who ultimately became a Buddhist nun. Dull Gret (Rebecca Herron) is a fictional character painted by Brueghel who led an army of women intent on attacking Hell. Legendary Pope Joan (Jennifer Sinatra) disguised as a male, gains the ultimate position in the Catholic Church. Highlighted in several pieces of literature, Patient Griselda (Carley Adams) is the epitome of the obedient (some may say subservient) wife.
On the menu is the history of all these characters as they converse about their backgrounds, husbands and children, how they coped in a male-dominated world.
Note: The Waitress (Erika Krenn) moves quietly and efficiently among the guests, serving several courses of real food and drink throughout the dinner.
After the fantasy dinner we transition to the present (actually 1982) in the Top Girls’ office where a series of interviews occurs with female clients looking for employment (where the actors play multiple roles). There’s a lot of dry comedy but also some matter-of-fact interview questions that today would make any prospective employee shiver. “How old are you?” “You’re interested in computers – you’ll be competing with males.”
Marlene decided long ago that she wants a career in the corporate world and her path has been sequential – just a career, no multi-tasking with a marriage or children. Her determination to succeed carries over in her interviews with the female clients. Any one daring to indicate that they need a job in order to pay for a wedding is chastised. If that’s their goal, they need to downplay it. After all, Marlene’s success depends on her female interviewees actually securing positions.
From this point on we go back and forth between the Top Girls Agency to the English countryside where Marlene grew up, which is still the home of her sister, Joyce (Jena Oberg), and Joyce’s daughter, Angie (Sadie Crow). Angie is anxious to leave and stay with her Auntie Marlene. She confesses her plans to her young friend, Kit (Amanda DeConciliis Weber).
Angie makes it to London and to the Top Girls Agency much to the surprise of Auntie Marlene, and, of course, things spiral from there.
Another Note: Many of the actors play dual roles that require an English accent and they are flawless.
Excellent performances from this talented cast!
Cloutier easily transitions from the career woman in command of her life and goals into the working-class vulnerable girl when she’s back in her old neighborhood.
Sinatra is powerful as Pope Joan, her eyes conveying much of her emotion.
Hillgrove tackles Isabelle Bird with confidence and is saucy as Win.
Lesaca brings a gentleness to Lady Nijo. Often interrupted during the dinner, she’s softly able to make her point.
Adams’ Griselda is perfect as the ever-obeying wife.
Throughout most of the fantasy dinner, Herron as Dull Gret rarely speaks, stuffing bread in her mouth, drinking wine out of a bottle. Most of her emotions are conveyed with eye movements and double-takes. She perfectly creates the rough, folkloric war leader.
Jena Oberg is superb as the downtrodden sister clashing with Marlene over her unhappy life. She and Cloutier are riveting in their sibling showdown.
Crow’s fantastic as the solemn, lost but unknowingly funny niece. Her comedy skills are spot on.
Deconciliis Weber as Kit and Shona brings humor to both roles with her cadence and facial gestures and physical movements.
This play portrays the many nuances and underlying circumstances that have affected women all through the ages. The employment agency interviews subtly shine light on those prejudices evident at the time this play was produced. It is no longer acceptable to ask personal questions at an interview. It is still possible (and highly probable) that you may still hear an occasional personal question, after an interviewee leaves – questions such as, “So, how old do you think she is?”
The process is improving for women, but we’re not there yet!
“Top Girls” is a production of Little Lake Theatre Company, 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15317. It runs from May 16th to June 1st. For more information, click here.