What if Oedipus was a woman? She might have bonked her mom and boinked her dad. What if Ulysses was a woman, or the Pope? What if Jesus was a woman? More than one of the above topics will be explored at point blank in the coming evenings, as well as many others equally provoking, all on stage at the Masquer Theatre for the next two weeks, in the all-female production of Top Girls.
Imagine a restaurant at the end of the universe, where some fine women of the ages gather for cocktails, sharing snippets of their life stories in the past tense. In attendance you have Lady Nijo, a Japanese-courtesan-cum-Buddhist-nun from the 12th century, who traveled the mountains and valleys of Japan on foot; you have Dull Gret, a woman from a Brueghel painting, in which she leads a group of women on more than a panty-raid of Hell. Other characters too, too many to tell, sharing laughter and tears. And there is Marlene, in whose honor this party has been thrown. Unlike the other guests, Marlene’s life is not yet over—in fact, she just got a promotion.
Such diversity of company can make for confusing conversation, especially when the conversation splits into separate dialogues delivered across the table. So don’t get discouraged if you find yourself feeling like a first-grader at a high school history debate. It will all come together. Caryl Churchill’s cleverly written play is designed to keep you in the game, if at times only by the seat of your pants.
Churchill’s is a surreal universe, so you should wear appropriate eye gear. Accept the fact that the woman in the kimono speaking with a British accent is in fact the ancient Japanese nun. They’re all speaking Victorian English, rather than each her unique tongue. But there are clues to distinguish them. Lady Noji might have a kimono. Issabella might have a riding crop. The Pope goes on a beautiful soliloquoy in Latin. Don’t forget to read the program.
And remember, drama is intrinsically the most difficult form of story to follow, because there is no narrator—neither first person nor third person—to tell you what’s going on. The object (that is, the show) is presented purely in terms of itself, rather than presented to the subject (the audience) who is neither addressed nor even acknowledged by the story’s teller, who remains invisible as well. The audience is left to fend for itself as to what and where the story is.
With this complexity and challenge comes the potential for greater rewards as well, a drama by which we glimpse a certain sliver of a bigger picture we couldn’t have gotten any other way. Human beings acting out human being stories, archetypes we all have a stake in.
Like a musical score, the power of a dramatic script lies in the presentation. To help this seven-member posse interpret the Top Girls script, UM alumna Kathy Danzer returned from New York for five weeks to mastermind the effort. It seems sad, yet also beautiful and fitting, that Kathy will return to New York this Sunday, half-way through the production’s run, leaving the cast and crew to steer the mothership into port without Mama. And I think they’re gonna get away with it. I sat in on their first dress rehearsal, fresh off of a 10-day spring break hiatus, and here is what I have to report: They were lively and loose, with that back-in-the-saddle kind of energy you feel with a group that is working together sexy-solid in the zone, all on a stage surrounded on four sides by the audience.
In the next scene, the restaurant beyond space and time dissolves into Top Girls Employment Agency in London, England, where we see Marlene in action with a client, first grilling her on her qualifications, and then coaching her for an interview. Clearly, Marlene is a highly effective pimp in the world of corporate support services. So effective, in fact, that she has usurped Howard, who is at present vacating her soon-to-be office. This coup is the occasion for tonight’s party at the end of time and space.
In the next scene, two girls, ages 15 and 12, pass an afternoon in the backyard, sharing secrets, lies, cuddles, and accusations. Maybe they hold the key to the big picture, where Marlene, her sister, and the restaurant at the end of the universe all converge, in the kitchen. And on it goes. Not too long.
One final tip: Certain University and high school classes have been assigned to watch this play by their professors. Look for them to put it off till it’s almost too late, heavily taxing the ticket supply for the later dates.
Top Girls shows nightly at 7:30 p.m., March 29-31, and April 3-7. Tickets $9 general and $7 students and senior citizens, available in the box offices in the PARTV Center Lobby and the University Center. Call 243-4581.