Sunday, April 27, 2014

The "top girl" who isn't a feminist

The talented cast of Top Girls.

Sometimes it seems that feminism has a problem with its greatest playwright:

She isn't exactly a "feminist."

Thus there is much gnashing of teeth around the career of Caryl Churchill (below), arguably our leading playwright - and certainly our leading female playwright. Despite that rep, she is only occasionally produced locally; somehow few of the lady Poo-bahs of our theatrical scene evince much interest in her - ironically enough, while they call constantly for "more plays by women," they treat Caryl Churchill like a kind of leper. Indeed, of our major local companies, I can only think of ONE production of Churchill in the last decade (the Lyric mounted A Number perhaps six or seven years ago).

The situation is all the more acute now that Meg Taintor (the fringe exception who proved the rule) is closing down Whistler in the Dark (whose celebratory "wake" is tonight at the Charlestown Working Theatre, btw). Without Taintor in action, will we ever see Churchill's latest, the already-celebrated Love and Information?  I sometimes wonder.

Such questions are weighing on me as I've just seen a misguided production of Top Girls, one of Churchill's major works, from Bad Habit Productions, one of our rising fringe companies. Indeed, for the past two years Bad Habit has been a major force at the IRNEs, swiping major prizes for widely admired mountings of two challenging texts, Arcadia and Gross Indecency. The latter play was even helmed by the director of Top Girls, Liz Fenstermaker, who won a Best Director citation for her work. In that production, her touch seemed utterly assured; yet here she gropes for the right tone, misdirects the lead performance, and in general can't keep the complicated ensemble in focus.

Which leaves this particular critic pondering what exactly went so wrong. Certainly Gross Indecency and Top Girls both demand a precisely cast and directed ensemble; but beyond that, the two texts almost could not be more opposed. Mois├ęs Kaufman (the author/assembler of Gross) is completely conventional in political terms, and frames liberal issues in a way with which all good people must agree; he also operates in a textually based, but likewise conventional theatrical manner; Gross Indecency in its way is an old-fashioned well-made play.

Top Girls, of course, is anything but. Like all Churchill, it's discursive, and scrambles genres and modes without apology. And what's more, its politics are prickly - particularly to women. Particularly to feminists, I should say. For while Churchill is always concerned with gender and justice, she casts the same unsparing eye on "feminism" that she casts on everything else - perhaps because power itself is always in her sights; so as women gain power, they sometimes inch from heroine to villain in the playwright's moral calculus.

Top Girls was probably a milestone in that regard.  Its genesis (in 1982) was clearly sparked by the rise of Margaret Thatcher, a woman with bigger balls than any male leader of her day (seriously - Ronald Reagan? George Bush?  Please!). Unsurprisingly, the play's premiere closely followed not only Thatcher's brutal subjugation of the unionized left, but also the Falklands War - perhaps the last pointless gasp of British colonialism. By then "Maggie" embodied everything Churchill hated - capitalism, militarism, and the conservative culture of "self-reliance" that blurs into self-righteousness; so perhaps it was inevitable the playwright would conjure her most memorable character in response - the driven, right-leaning career girl "Marlene."

So far, so good for the lefties. What makes Top Girls tricky, however, is that Churchill calmly blended Marlene's politics with the self-centered ambition that today's feminists can't help but celebrate. They've been pretty thoroughly co-opted by libertarianism and capitalism over the years - indeed, Marlene's declaration that "Anyone can do anything if they've got what it takes!" is echoed by many progressive women today; the capitalist brainwash behind such sentiments as "I can have it all!" doesn't seem to occur to them. But Churchill isn't having any of it. Indeed, Top Girls maintains a relentless focus on everything Third (or Fourth, or Fifth) Wave feminists tend to forget - the children left behind (or given up), the forsaken families, the girls who simply don't have "what it takes," those who aren't role models, or beautiful, or talented, much less self-reliant - but who are human beings all the same.

The playwright today.

Thus in a cast that's entirely female, almost no one comes off well. Indeed, the play's celebrated opening scene - a surreal gathering of leading female figures from history and art who all want to toast Marlene's latest promotion - feels like a red-carpet scene in reverse. It begins (or should begin) as a wild night at the Golden Globes, with Amy and Tina presiding; but gradually we realize that all the "top girls" lifting a glass to Marlene are in denial of the evasions and sacrifices they made to make it to the top. Pope Joan had to disguise her sex, and was eventually stoned by her own priests; at the other end of the sexual spectrum, the concubine Lady Nijo was undone by jealous women, and ended up in a nunnery; most devastating of all is the tale of Patient Griselda (Churchill saves this for last), for whom the price of moral approval was the denial of her own children.

Needless to say, we discover these stories have their echoes in Marlene's own experience (it seems her subconscious has chosen her gallery of "top girls" with utmost accuracy).  We eventually learn that she too had a child she denies - and who has been foisted off on an impoverished sister. And the employment agency in which she's a rising star is a nest of climbers and courtesans whom Lady Nijo might recognize, and who like to lecture their clients on how to get ahead.  It's a grim picture, and one perhaps subtly skewed in its own way (after all, Maggie Thatcher herself managed to have a family), but its central insight still chills: the issues and the responsibilities (yes, I know) that have beset women throughout history will continue to do so; no amount of self-congratulation or wishful thinking can change that.

But at Bad Habit, this deep lesson never seems to surface; indeed, while some productions of Top Girls have struck me as too bald, this time around I sensed the audience wondering what Caryl Churchill could possibly be getting at. Of course that may be due to how drunk millennials have gotten on the late capitalist kool-aid; but that's only one more reason why we need a clear and cold production of Top Girls post-haste.

This, alas, wasn't it (the production closes this weekend). But Ferstenmaker does have an eye for talent, and as was the case with Gross Indecency, she has brought several promising newcomers to my attention, and for that I'm grateful. Lead Courtland Jones is a particular find; a striking beauty who's also a subtle actress, she's almost the perfect Marlene in terms of presence. But for some reason she strikes a bored, disillusioned note from the get-go, and continues in the same vein; which is precisely the wrong way to approach the role (if Marlene isn't a gleaming valkyrie when the curtain rises, there's nowhere for the play to go). But there are some strong solos here that are some compensation; Caroline Price is amusingly forceful as the Scottish adventuress Isabella Bird, and the reliable Janelle Mills makes an intriguingly avid Griselda. Best of all are Gillian Mackay-Smith's two turns as the legendary Pope Joan and her modern, masculinesque equivalent: both performances are luminously intelligent and eccentric.  Much talent is evident in this Top Girls, but it only demonstrates that acting alone isn't enough to put this play over the top.


  1. I profoundly hate to side with Margaret Thatcher about anything, but I always find it suspicious when people assert that it was "colonialism" to fight a war to expel the invading army of Argentina from some islands with a population consisting of two thousand British semi-citizens who unanimously didn't want to be invaded.

  2. Fair enough. But that's not how it looked to many in the left.