Shakespeare ’70, Inc., which describes itself as Mercer County’s only classical theater company, has opened its 41st season with “Top Girls,” a play from the 1980s by the prolific English playwright Caryl Churchill. The play runs through Saturday, October 2, at the College of New Jersey’s Don Evans Black Box Theater.
On entering the theater the audience encounters a stage dominated by a long dining table, attractively set with a tablecloth, china, and silverware. Marlene, who works at an employment agency called Top Girls, has organized this party to celebrate her promotion to a high-level job ordinarily filled by a man. As the guests, all female, file into this posh restaurant, it becomes clear that this is not an ordinary dinner party. The five guests are legendary women from the past who are connected with women’s issues; one of the women is a ninth-century pope; one comes from a Brueghel painting; one is Isabella Bird, a 19th-century writer and traveler; one is a 13th-century Japanese courtesan and nun; one is the medieval Patient Griselda. All five are dressed in costumes appropriate to their time and station.
Two waitresses bring in food and pour wine, or, more accurately, pour enormous amounts of wine, and several of the women begin to show the effects. Although the first scene supposedly represents a happy occasion, the women do not form a cohesive whole. Each of them is too preoccupied with her own problems to hear what the others are saying.
The rest of the play takes place in the real world of the 1980s, and Marlene is the only person to appear in both the imagined and the real world. The action takes place at the employment agency, the backyard of Marlene’s sister, Joyce’s, house, and, in a flashback, in Joyce’s kitchen. The women don’t listen to each other; they talk past each other; each is fixated on her own particular problems. The title becomes ironic, because these top girls are not controlling their own lives, let alone society. Indeed, the conclusions to be drawn from “Top Girls” are pessimistic — women are still not in control of their lives, and men are still setting the rules of the game. Although Marlene is being honored at the opening scene’s party, it seems she is not always friendly to those she works with; getting ahead is apparently more important to her than getting along.
The level of acting in “Top Girls” is generally high, making it possible to think about the issues that concern the author. The demanding central role of Marlene is played with authority and skill by Janet Quartarone. More experienced than many others in the cast, she is a member of Actors Equity and the Screen Actors Guild. She is a convincing actress, and the job she does seems even more impressive when you consider that she also serves as producer for this production. She is also the only cast member who does not play at least two roles. The doubling of parts is not an economy move by the theater, but an arrangement by Churchill, who presumably wants to make a point about the role of women.
Marlene’s sister, Joyce, is also the wine-pouring waitress in the first scene. She is played by Laurie Hardy, who teaches drama and has acted with many area theaters. Sarah Stryker has perhaps the most contrasting roles to be seen in this production. She is Pope Joan in the first act and a gum chewing, slang-talking teenager in the second. Elizabeth So does a first-rate job as Lady Nijo, a young Japanese woman who has served as a sex slave to the heights of Japanese society, in the first act, and Kit, a neighbor’s young child, in the second. Jessica Noll represents the character from the Brueghel painting in the first act and attracts some attention by her surreptitious attempts to help herself to various objects that belong to the restaurant. Heather Duncan as the second waitress and Angie (Joyce’s disruptive daughter); Susan Fowler, who plays Isabella Bird and two contemporary women; and Emily West as Patient Griselda and two contemporary women round out the cast.
Churchill is a prolific author, having written over 40 plays (including radio and television dramas). She is known, among other reasons, for her concern with feminist issues, and “Top Girls” certainly is all about that cause. Churchill seems to be saying that to get ahead women have to behave in an unpleasant way. A device she uses frequently in “Top Girls” is to have characters begin to talk before the person who is already talking has stopped. This may be realistic and also says something about the world the play takes place in, but can make it harder for the audience to catch the lines.
“Top Girls” is directed by Brian Bara, who has not just directed other plays for TCNJ, but also has appeared on stage there and written several plays and movie scripts. The set is designed by Maria Montroni, a graduate of TCNJ and a school teacher by day. The set changes radically for the different scenes, and is made up of a combination of real furniture and styrofoam pieces that can be quickly disassembled and reassembled and carried off or on with relative ease by members of the cast. Jack Bathke, the lighting designer, teaches at Princeton High School and has served as both the lighting designer and an actor with several area groups. He has also written plays. The technical director, Dale Simon, is another member of the production who has not stuck to one part of the theater. He has been active as an actor, a director, and a set designer and serves as the theater coordinator of the college’s Kendall Performing Arts Center. He is married to Janet Quartarone.
“Top Girls,” Shakespeare ’70, Kendall Hall, College of New Jersey, Ewing. Thursday, September 30, 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, October 1 and 2, 8 p.m. Caryl Churchill’s controverial drama about career women. $12. 609-882-5979 or www.shakespeare70.org.