Review: ‘Top Girls’ at Keegan Theatre

Only the indubitable Caryl Churchill could, in a play about a contemporary dysfunctional British family, give us an opening restaurant scene that includes the likes of:

  • Dull Gret (a warrior peasant woman from Breughel’s famous painting),
  • Pope Joan (the fictional woman who served as Pope for a few years during the Middle Ages),
  • Lady Nijo (a Japanese historical figure, and concubine to Emperor Go-Fukakusa who later became a Buddhist monk),
  • Isabella Bird(the 19th-century British travel writer)
  • Patient Griselda(the fictional folk woman who swears obedience to her marque).
Caroline Dubberly, Jessica Lefkow, Alexandra Palting, Amanda Forstrom, Karina Hilleard. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

But that’s both the genius of Churchill and the raging success of Keegan’s current production.

You might wonder why such a first act exists: only Marlene, the cool as frozen tripe manager of a London-based employment agency, returns for acts two and three.

Any sensible playwright, or producer, would cut those women of history and fiction out of a fairly naturalistic play about feminism and class.

But Caryl Churchill knows what she wants, and Director Amber Paige McGinnis knows what she has.

So, with an opening act that rocks with ego and overlapping dialogue and grotesque caricature, when the realism sets with its equally vivid, yet profoundly disturbed characters, we in the audience accept the mythology of our own perceptions.

Caroline Dubberly & Daven Ralston. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

We accept the falseness of our own declarations of truth.

We accept the battleground called life.

The previously mentioned Marlene, played like an Iron Lady by Karina Hilleard, runs an employment agency where Win, played with gusto by Alexandra Maria Palting (who also plays Lady Nijo), and Nell, played flirtatiously by Amanda Forstrom (who also plays Patient Griselda). They find jobs for various women, one of which is Louise, an older woman played by Jessica Lefkow (who also plays the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin Pope Joan).

It turns out that Marlene has a working-class sister, Joyce, played with weather-beaten grit by Susan Marie Rhea (who also plays the upscale Isabella Bird).

Her teen daughter Angie, played with psycho-real hostility by Caroline Dubberly (who also plays Dull Gret), camps out in the backyard of her “ghetto” apartment with her pre-teen friend Kit, played with bubbly stubbornness by Daven Ralston (who also plays a host of other characters).

It turns out that there is no love lost between Marlene and Joyce.

Susan Marie Rhea. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

It turns out that women, despite whatever commonality contemporary identity politics espouse for them, have as many differences among them as among the men in their lives that in this play we never see.

It turns out that Caryl Churchill’s endlessly provocative play about the difficult choices women make, and the tragic consequences that ensue, couldn’t be more timely.

With fascinatingly effective set design by Matthew J. Keenan and eye-popping costumes by Alison Samantha Johnson, Keegan’s production of Top Girls is delightfully disturbing.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with two 10-minute intermissions

Top Girls plays through December 2, 2017, at Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., considers himself a Creativist. He has been involved in education and the performing arts in the Washington area since the 1980s. He, along with his wife, Elizabeth Bruce, and Jill Navarre, co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in 1983. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theater and performance studies from the University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theater over the five years he worked as a reviewer than he saw in the previous 30. He now co-directs the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project. He has his first book of poetry, The Dark Diary: in 27 refracted moments, due for publication by Finishing Line Press later this year.


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