Top Girls: You’re the Top! You’re Napoleon Brandy

British playwright Caryl Churchill said in an essay that she published in 1960, “playwrights don’t give answers, they ask questions.” Her play Top Girls, which was recently revived by Soulpepper Theatre, definitely provides the framework to encourage some tough- yet stimulating- questions to be debated by audience members in the lobby, and possibly all the way home.
The play was written in 1982 as a comment on the tensions between two contrasting forms of feminism- the individual and the collective- raising the question whether it is possible for a woman to be successful in her career while maintaining a healthy relationship with her family. The issues raised in the play are complex and incongruous and do not contain any one simple solution even by 2008 standards. It left this third generation feminist with simultaneous feelings of frustrated despair, cautious pride, and a gritty determination to go out into the snowy night and have faith in her future as a young woman poised to at least try to fulfill her lofty dreams.
The first scene of the play is a dinner party held to celebrate Marlene (Megan Follows), who has just received a promotion at the employment agency where she works. Her guests of honor are all prominent and controversial (and dead) historic or legendary women. The scene is obviously fictitious within the context of the otherwise realistic play, and is implied to exist within Marlene’s subconscious- either in a dream or her imagination. The marvelous women performing in Soulpepper’s production bring various degrees and interpretations of strength to this dinner party- from the forceful Pope Joan (Ann-Marie MacDonald) who will interrupt anyone, to the guff Dull Gret (Liisa Repo-Martell) who manages to command the stage although she is often the only one not speaking, and Patient Griselda (Cara Pifko), whose unwavering patience, loyalty and confidence in her decisions is simultaneously frustrating and striking. The women speak overtop of one another filling the theatre with a medley of voices and accents (especially amazing are Kelli Fox’s Scottish accent and Robyn Stevan’s Japanese accent) and opinions- drowning one another out, challenging each other and forcing the audience to sacrifice one narrative for another.
Some of my Ontarian classmates who have been privy to more of these sorts of productions than I have, strongly criticized Alisa Palmer’s direction of this scene saying that she allowed her actors too much shtick, which counteracted the strong social commentary this scene ought to have. It seems to me, however, that the heightened performances in this scene work well to establish the dream-like state and are consistent not with the way these women actually were in their lives, but how they exist in Marlene’s mind. In reality, is Marlene actually having a dinner party by herself? Is she drinking copious amounts of wine? Is this hallucination a product of her drunkenness?
I also find Churchill’s choice of women to be particularly interesting. Isabella Bird, Pope Joan, Patient Griselda, Dull Gret and Lady Nijo are not stereotypical figures in history, in feminist teachings, or in popular culture. I found myself compelled to Google each of them when I returned home from the theatre. This speaks wonders of Marlene, that her education and breadth of knowledge expended so far that these would be the women she would invite to dinner (as opposed to, say, Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc).
In the Second Act we are introduced to two young girls, Marlene’s niece, Angie, (Liisa Repo-Martell) and her friend Kit (Cara Pifko) who dramatize poignantly how important it is for girls to have strong mothers, which connects with the admission of all the “top girls” at the dinner party that none of them had strong connections with their children. This scene is truly magnificent. Repo-Martell is brilliant as the deeply frustrated Angie interweaving disturbing images of hatred and violence, with innocent vulnerability and a strong desire to be liked and naïve admiration for her aunt. It is obvious that Angie has potential, but that she needs special encouragement and guidance in order to realize it. It is also clear that she will receive neither. Cara Pifko is superb as the younger Kit, a clever girl who looks up to Angie with exuberance simply because Angie is older than her, but who cannot understand why Angie is so disturbed. I give special shout out to Pifko for the way she runs up the stairs on all fours as she exits one of the scenes, as it is a beautiful homage to childhood that may too-soon slip an adult’s mind.
The formidable final scene between Marlene and her sister Joyce is the most gripping moment in the entire play and proves without question why Megan Follows and Kelli Fox are such giants of the Canadian Theatre. Fox creates a nuanced portrayal of Joyce, who on paper can seem even colder and more heartless than Marlene, who has been saddled with all domestic responsibilities and whose stress, despair and economic hardships has eroded any admirable ideals she may have once possessed. This leaves the audience to surmise that Angie is “not gonna make it” because neither of the women in her life have the energy it will take to help her, and thus she will most likely follow in Joyce’s dreary footsteps.
Similarly, Follows gives a glimpse of heart to the ruthless and selfish Marlene, a woman who has sacrificed her family for her career and yet finds herself craving familial relationships once she’s established herself as an independent woman. I will watch any show that Megan Follows performs in because she always brings such integrity and strong intelligence to every part she plays. The struggle between Joyce and Marlene in Top Girls epitomizes the entire play as two strong, talented and intelligent women portray two equally strong, complex, frustrating women who raise issues that audiences can sympathize with and tactics that audiences can find deplorable. It is a rivalry between sisters that dramatizes a rivalry between women of different classes, races, cultures, religions and opinions on feminism. How can we stand together and demand better for ourselves when each woman and her circumstances are so vastly different?
Caryl Churchill raises the questions. It is our responsibility to strive to live the answers.

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