Attention must be paid. Not because someone is reviving Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Rather because the seditious Caryl Churchill is back on view. If you don't pay strict attention to the musings of this British revolutionary, you're likely to be very confused very fast. Churchill demolishes theatrical conventions as nonchalantly as Albert smashes grand slams. In Top Girls, Churchill's 1982 drama that is currently being staged by Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, the final scene occurs one year earlier than the rest of the action. Which is to say that the narrative of Top Girls is out of joint; the story builds to its preface.
Why? you ask. To which Churchill would doubtless reply, Why not? Allowing events to play out in chronological order (as life does) is much too obvious. Who would pay attention to that? Besides, if the last scene were first, then the first scene would be second. Thus Top Girls would no longer open with one of Churchill's most celebrated set pieces: a dinner party to which our protagonist Marlene, the aggressive, newly appointed managing director of Top Girls Employment Agency, has invited five other accomplished women both fictional and historical. An odd lot they are, too, including a Victorian explorer, a medieval Japanese concubine turned Buddhist nun and Pope Joan (who, in a brazen charade, is said to have briefly presided over the Vatican in the ninth century). There's even a character made famous in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
Each of these time-traveling guests does a lot of ranting about the price she had to pay to succeed in a man's world. (They do very little listening.) Perhaps we could be persuaded that all five invitees manifest traits that Marlene will evince through the evening. But it is curious that most of the scene's key lines are delivered by Marlene herself. Wouldn't it make sense for one of her guests to toast their hostess? No, it's Marlene who leads the toast: "To our courage and the way we changed our lives." Since these characters are all dead (if indeed they were ever alive), perhaps we have the right to wonder if this cockamamie dinner party is even happening. Here's a thought: Perhaps Marlene is indulging in a hallucinogenic haze. Perhaps when she asks, "Why are we all so miserable?" she's only talking to herself. It's certainly possible; anything goes with Churchill.
But it's hard to get a fix on this scene in this current staging. The problem is that director Emily Piro has been too faithful to the text. Churchill writes in a precise staccato manner that specifies when actors are to interrupt and talk over another actor's lines — which in this opening scene is most of the time. But the acoustics at the Chapel, a sort of black box with stately style where this production is being staged, are unrelenting. Dialogue is easily discernible when actors talk one at a time. But when these Top Girls are heaping verbiage atop one another, the result is an indecipherable cacophony. Of course it may well be that the insidious Churchill intends for the dialogue to be indistinct; if so, the Chapel is an ideal venue.
But if it's a story you seek, be patient. By the time we get to Act Two, an estrangement between working woman Marlene (Rachel Tibbetts) and her more domestic sister Joyce (Johanna Elkana-Hale) has begun to take shape. The final scene (the family reunion that occurs a year prior to the rest of the action) is — dare we say it? — pure melodrama, and it's riveting. Joyce, the matronly sister who feels stuck at home, is in fact stuck in her chair; she rarely moves, yet we hang onto her every word. The predatory Marlene veritably prowls the stage. Marlene never stops moving but goes nowhere. As we in the audience grow ever more involved, Churchill's rule-breaking suddenly seems irrelevant. We are being held rapt by two talented, well-directed actresses seizing the moment in a high-stakes confrontation. Theater rarely gets much more engaging — or conventional — than that.
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