8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Oklahoma City Theatre Company
Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker
Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” is notable for its unique examination of women’s role in English society during the rise of Thatcherism.
The play opens with a fantasy dinner to celebrate the recent promotion of Marlene, a successful businesswoman. In this dreamlike scene, she is surrounded by women from history and fiction whom she admires, including the English explorer Isabella Bird; Dull Gret, who is said to have raided Hell itself; Lady Nijo, a Japanese concubine-turned-nun; Pope Joan, who, disguised as a man, was briefly pope in the ninth century; and Patient Griselda from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”
The women talk with and over each other about their lives and the shared experience of sacrifice made in pursuit of their goals “ one of several themes set up for exploration through the rest of the play. After the opening scene, the setting shifts to early 1980s England. During scenes set at the Top Girls employment agency and the home of Marlene’s sister, Joyce, we start to get an idea that Marlene, who comes off as gregarious and fun during the dinner, is a cold, selfish woman.
The chaotic nature of the opening, meant to reflect more natural conversations, can be off-putting at times as the audience has to struggle to keep up with multiple threads at once, some of which just get lost in the commotion. During that same scene, a few of the cast fall into the trap that historical person equals stilted when it comes to performance.
Standing out from the beginning of the Oklahoma City Theatre Company’s production is Linda McDonald as Marlene, brilliantly playing a range of attitudes and emotions. Although Marlene can be monstrous and hard to empathize with, McDonald succeeds in creating a complete portrait of a woman who, in the process of becoming successful, came to emulate some of the worst qualities of men in power.
Most of the cast turn in strong performances in the more contemporary scenes. Kaylee Johnson captures the impulsive “ and at times, dangerous “ spirit of Marlene’s emotionally immature niece. As Joyce, Emily Ward does a good job selling the audience one version of the character, as a harsh maternal figure with little patience or love for her troubled daughter, only to reveal more subtle layers as the story unfolds. Ward and McDonald both shine during a tense and prolonged argument that doubles as the climax.
Directed by Doug Van Liew, “Top Girls” is a no-frills production focused on telling the story through the characters. Along with all the English accents, some of the humor, meant to provide some much-needed relief from the dark tone in Act 1, gets lost.
Like with a lot of contemporary productions of Shakespeare, Van Liew decided that it was more important for his cast to get the characters right than to attempt an accent. For the most part, I think they pull it off, but there are times when some specific English phrases just fall flat or feel awkward.
If you’re looking for light entertainment, OCTC’s production of “Top Girls” is not the play you’re looking for. If, however, you’re up for a challenging nontraditional theater experience full of thought-provoking ideas and some strong performances, check it out. “Eric Webb
above Linda McDonald and Emily Ward star in “Top Girls.”