“Who run the world? Girls!”
So proclaimed the lyrics to the Beyoncé song that played as the University of South Carolina’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls began. The song accompanied an assertive, stylized, interpretive dance/movement piece that celebrated girl power, but the author’s unspoken follow-up question might well have been, “Yes, but at what cost?”
Blistering moments of white-hot emotional intensity alternated on stage with sad glimpses of unfulfillment in the lives of modern women in early 1980s England. Churchill’s script extols feminist ideals, yet pulls no punches in exploring the compromises and sacrifices that are often required. The result was unsettling, thought-provoking, but at all times entertaining thanks to compelling performances by the all-student cast.
Thirty-something executive Marlene (Kimberly Braun) is at the top of her game, preparing to assume a senior management position at a London staffing agency — the titular Top Girls. Yet success in the previously all-male upper echelons of the Margaret Thatcher-era business world — contemporaneous with Reaganomics-fueled materialism in the U.S — seems to bring headaches and frustration more than lasting happiness. Indeed, Marlene and her office mates (played by Amber Coulter and Amelia Bruce) appear to have embraced traditionally male patterns of workplace ruthlessness, leaving their less-accomplished but no less sympathetic sisters of the soul behind.
Marlene’s blood sister Joyce (Libby Hawkins), however, is all too real — a harsh, rural, working-class single mom who resents Marlene’s seemingly perfect life, especially when troubled and rebellious daughter Angie (Cassidy Spencer) idealizes living with glamorous Auntie Marlene.
The conflict between the sisters exploded in the play’s final scene, and was as raw, gripping and heart-wrenching as any family battle can be, especially as written by a master prose stylist such as Churchill. Yet there were multiple layers of significance, with the author offering Joyce as a surrogate voice for a more inclusive — if socialist — vision for womanhood. Both Hawkins and Braun are second-year MFA students, and squared off previously as Napoleon and Snowball in last spring’s Animal Farm. It was a treat on opening weekend to see the passion in their facial expressions up close (as opposed to being partially obscured by anthropomorphic pig costumes) as hurtful accusations segued within seconds to casual sisterly chitchat.
Marlene’s journey was preceded in the play’s opening scene by a fantasy dreamscape of iconic women from history and folklore, “top girls” who came together to share their stories at a surreal and anachronistic dinner party. The actresses cast as Marlene’s family, colleagues and clients doubled as these archetypal figures, each representing some aspect of or metaphor for Marlene’s struggle to succeed. Coulter was serene as the apocryphal Pope Joan who rose to the papacy while disguised as a man, but was stoned to death for heresy. Bruce played Chaucer’s Griselda, who allowed her children to be taken from her, only to reunite with them years later. Liv Matthews was appropriately sullen and monosyllabic as Dull Gret, a folk character from a Bruegel painting in which rebellious women mount an assault on Hell itself, while Kelsey McCloskey was reflective and philosophical as Lady Nijō, who endured and even thrived as an Emperor’s concubine before becoming a Buddhist nun.
As the ladies chatted and gossiped like any participants in a girls’ night out, lines and narratives often overlapped, a common technique in Churchill’s works. Director Lindsay Rae Taylor did a decent job at ensuring that the most significant words and phrases stood out. Still, I’d recommend that one pay attention to Marlene at all times; no matter how fascinating these allegorical ancestors of hers may be, it’s her story that we follow through the rest of the performance.
The director, working in tandem with dialect coach Marybeth Gorman Craig, has ensured authentic accents reflecting differing levels of contemporary British social class structure, but at times these were so thick as to be nearly incomprehensible. While acknowledging Churchill’s consummate skill with the English language, and admiring the cast’s proficiency in timing and delivery, I really wish that all involved had cheated a little, sacrificing some verisimilitude in concession to the ears of an American audience.
Carly Sober’s minimalist scenic design incorporated grid-like panels that suggested a private banquet room doubling as an art gallery, then Venetian blinds in Marlene’s office, and finally, when rotated slightly, bars that symbolically imprisoned indistinct female forms.
Although the cast gave solid performances across the board, special mention must be made of undergraduates Spencer and Matthews, who convincingly portrayed Angie and her friend Kit as young teenagers. Their splendidly realized use of uninhibited body language and vocal mannerisms combined to convey all the awkwardness, giddiness, immaturity and histrionics that the roles required.
The author has said that Top Girls was written as a feminist response to Thatcherite Conservatism of the 1980s. But the issues raised sadly felt even more relevant today.
Where:USC Center for Performance Experiment, 718 Devine St.
When:Through Nov. 4