An invitation to dinner with Marlene could be quite entertaining. It also would be quite a compliment, because the women she invites are an eccentric and accomplished group.At her last dinner, there was Isabella Bird, the 19th-century explorer; Pope Joan, who masqueraded as a man to keep her papal job; and Lady Nijo, the 13th-century courtesan. Two fictional figures—Dull Gret, a Flemish woman warrior from a Pieter Bruegel painting, and Patient Griselda, out of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—livened up an already fascinating conversation.
In Top Girls, an odd and disconcerting play by Caryl Churchill, the audience members are invited to be voyeurs at a congratulatory dinner that 1980s superwoman Marlene gives herself. The dinner’s underlying theme is that although the women are considered successes in today’s society, in their own times they were ostracized and paid a high price for their solitary paths. This includes Marlene, who has to dip into history because she never had time to make friends on her way up the career ladder.
Top Girls was selected by City Theatre director Christine Nicholson. It’s an interesting choice that brings out strong performances but fails to really connect. Churchill puts too much into the play and makes too many widespread generalities. She starts with the dinner, which is fascinating, but then switches to a modern-day office setting and then to a house that holds secrets. The play veers in too many directions and, in the end, comes across almost anti-woman with its stereotypes and judgments.
We do get great performances, however. The most notable are from Lynn Baker (Marlene), Martha Omiyo Kight (Pope Joan), Katharine Pappa (Nijo) and Brooke Wagstaff (niece). The production will rotate in new actresses throughout the run.