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Monday, 03 October 2011 17:59

In high heels and backwards

Written by Bob Wilcox
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The Details

Marlene has been promoted to the top job in the London employment agency Top Girls. To celebrate, she invites other top girls to dinner. But the top girls are not Marlene's contemporaries. They're all celebrated figures, fictional or real, from the past.

This is a typical Caryl Churchill dip into fantasy that opens her play Top Girls.

But Churchill then turns to the familiar realistic mode to take us into the life of Marlene and those around her.

The playwright challenges the seven actors in her play to change from the fantasy guests to the real people in Marlene's life. It's a challenge that director Andrea Urice and her cast meet magnificently in the current production of Top Girls at Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts.

Carlee Avery plays Marlene throughout, with fine poise and, eventually, an emotional breakdown. Erica Stephan creates a detailed physical presence for both Dull Gret, the crude revolting peasant of Breughel's painting, and Angie, the slow teenage daughter Marlene left with her older sister to mother in the small town Marlene fled for success in the city. Ally Young-Price, the pleasant server at the dinner, plays the sister, struggling to make ends meet and trying not to hate her sister. Sophia Brown and Hillary Brainerd, having been at the dinner, respectively, a Victorian lady traveller and Chaucer's Patient Griselda, are now employees at the employment agency, interviewing potential clients. Mackie Saylor, Pope Joan at the dinner, is now two contrasting interviewees. And Dakota Mackey-McGee, at dinner the concubine of a medieval Japanese emperor, plays both another potential client and Angie's young friend.

The cast gets help with a range of British and other dialects from Dialect Coach Sigrid Sutter. Rai Feltmann's lean set makes much of little in this arena staging in the Loretto-Hilton's studio theatre. That helps stage manager Angela Moschera and her crew make swift and efficient scene changes. Jessica Leslie's costumes and Ryan Hanson's wig and makeup designs take full advantage of the range of periods and social positions among the play's characters. The subtle changes in Emily Holmead's lighting design, along with Tom Haverkamp's sound design, support the rhythmic ebb and flow of the production.

Written in 1982, Churchill's richly imagined drama of the sacrifices women make to succeeded in a male-dominated society may seem today a little over-the-top, though the irony of Marlene's hero Margaret Thatcher, who will make life triply hard for Marlene's sister, becoming the latest top girl still resonates.

Both the play itself and the Conservatory's production are well worth seeing.

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