There is something dated about Caryl Churchill's feminism in "Top Girls."
Churchill's resentment over the treatment of her sex comes through her dialogue like a constant whining, sometimes subtly, sometimes with a trumpet blast. One wishes she had moved beyond it, perhaps to explore the next sociological challenge for women--whatever that might be.
The all-woman play is director Edythe Pirazzini's choice for the reopening of her Mission Playhouse at its new home in Marina Village. Performances will continue through April 26.
The idea that women must face and conquer unfair obstacles is thoroughly covered in Churchill's first scene, which is "Top Girls' " most appealing element.
With some imaginative conjuring, the British writer brings five outstanding women from history and literature together to dine with her modern heroine, Marlene. The group gathers in a restaurant to celebrate Marlene's promotion to director of the Top Girls employment agency.
The scene is laid out like a women's luncheon, personal traumas exposed in a chattering way--no matter how life-shaking the revelation might be. The playwright has carefully directed that the conversations overlap, one interrupting another, questions being posed and answered two at a time, crisscrossing the table in lines of shared experience.
And that is the point. Marlene, played by Pamela Adams-Regan like a Savvy magazine cover, is supposed to be the sum of these historical and literary parts.
Her compatriots include Pope Joan, a 9th-Century woman who is rumored to have disguised herself as a man to achieve intellectual freedom and a stint as Pope. Actress Mimette Wishart gives Joan body and soul, a good performance topped in later scenes when Wishart takes the role of Joyce, Marlene's downtrodden but not beaten sister.
The other "real" members of the group are Isabella Bird, a 19th - Century adventuress played with stilted precision by Ginger Perry, and Lady Nijo, a Japanese emperor's mistress turned Buddhist nun brought back from the 13th Century with shrill excess (and terrible makeup) by actress Connie Collier.
Tani Means grunts and growls appropriately as Dull Gret, immortalized in a Brueghel painting as the fearless housewife who led a contingent of women into Hell to fight the demons.
But it is the figure of Patient Griselda (and the actress who plays her, Anne Bowen-Davies) who sparks our interest. Griselda, a mythical wife from Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," is a woman so perfectly obedient to her monstrous husband that we grimace as we hear her explain with delicate, ringing goodness the trials she endured.
We don't see these characters after the first scene, but the actresses take on other roles as Churchill drops us back into the present, shifting between Marlene's London employment agency and her childhood home in Suffolk, where the past hangs ominously over her upward climb.
Churchill's purpose becomes blurred here. The plot weakens. The modern characters are less inspired than their predecessors; they have little to give of themselves.
The final scene, a confrontation between Marlene and her sister, exposes hostility, sacrifice, compromise, and the bleak revelation that neither has discovered a sure way out. Churchill herself must have been feeling rather discouraged, unable to carry through the promise of that first inspired scene. It is as if she lost the thread, that she herself could not find the meaning in this continuity of life experience she had discovered.
This production provides no more than tacky, suggestive settings (by Brian and Cindi Van de Wetering and Robert Cademy), costumes that sometimes miss on authenticity (uncredited) and lighting (by Brian Van de Wetering and John Mellor) that is barely adequate. But Pirazzini has brought forth some dazzling acting.
No sooner have we dismissed Bowen-Davies' Griselda as another shallow, pretty face than the actress reappears as Angie, Marlene's slightly retarded and troubled 16-year-old daughter. As Angie, Bowen-Davies gives a disturbing, riveting, deeply realized performance that probes and uses up every scrap of character Churchill has offered.
Bowen-Davies' commitment to the role exposes the story's failings; the character grabs us, but where to go? For what purpose has she been created?
Adams-Regan and Wishart give off a few sparks of their own as Marlene and Joyce, plunging to satisfying depths of emotion despite the whining message they have to deliver.
"Top Girls" offers a splendid preview of Pirazzini's directorial power, which is deeply concerned with acting. Don't look for shiny, surface-oriented productions in her theater.
"TOP GIRLS" By Caryl Churchill. Directed by Edythe Pirazzini. Lighting and Sound by Brian Van de Wetering and John Mellor. Sets by Brian and Cindi Van de Wetering and Robert Cademy. With Pamela Adams-Regan, Belle Marie Stouffer, Ginger Perry, Connie Collier, Tani Means, Mimette Wishart, Anne Bowen-Davies, Pat Olafson. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. through April 26 at the Mission Playhouse, 1936 Quivira Way (Marina Village).