Presented by Huntington Theatre Company
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Dramaturgy by Phaedra Michelle Scott
Original music & sound design by Broken Chord
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston, MA) Congrats to the Huntington for finally get that permanent ramp set up.
Top Girls is a feminist play by Caryl Churchill. It has a good script. It’s a good play for women. It isn’t Caryl Churchill’s only feminist play. It isn’t the only feminist play for a cast of women. There are others out there waiting to be produced, and yet, the New England theatre community loves this show. So much so that it’s been produced three times in the Boston-area alone in the past four years. The Kilroy’s List was supposed to end the ad nauseum repeats.
Top Girls is about sacrifice. Our sacrifices lead to unintentional costs and responsibilities. In order to be ourselves in the world, we women must choose carefully what we reveal and to whom. Women were sex maniac ballbusters or, they were moms. Sure, we can try to have it all now, but the 80’s were unconscionably cruel to women who desired a career and a family. PR/Marketing still pits women against each other. There was no having at all. There was only Zuul.
A more intimate production might not even have Tommy’s casting diversity: Pope Joan is played brilliantly with poise and restraint by Sophia Ramos who is Black. We haven’t even had a Black male Pope in real life, and Ramos gets to go where no Black man has gone before. Vanessa Kai is a stately Lady Nijo. Her subtle wrist movements and sleeve work reveal sophisticated training. Marlene (Carmen Zilles) is traditionally cast with a white women because England is so white that humans go there to complete the bleaching process… But, times are changing and today’s London is much more diverse. Zilles is such a compelling actress; it must have been difficult not to cast her.
Carmen M. Herlihy plays two characters: the heroically silent Dull Gret, and Angie. Angie is a neurodiverse teenager with violent tendencies. She is the product of Thatcher’s education policies. Yes, Thatcher snatched free milk from student lunches, and she treated the disabled inhumanely. She, like Reagan, believed in deinstitutionalizing the disabled. Nonviolent mentally and physically disabled individuals were ejected from institutional care and released to their communities. Students did not receive the specialized care currently available to them. Care was privatized, meaning, that a young woman like Angie was at the mercy of her ill equipped, under-educated, ignorant communities. That is, if she didn’t end up in a home.
Herlihy plays Angie with respect. Other productions have shied away from Angie’s neurodiversity and played her as sinister or merely immature – which is an option. As a disabled woman, I greatly appreciate the depth and sensitivity that Herlihy lends her character. Angie isn’t just disabled; she’s finding her way in the world like everyone else.
Linda Cho’s costume design is badass. The various period pieces in the first act are well constructed and thoughtful. Pope Joan’s regalia, Patient Griselda bodice, Isabella Bird’s walking dress, and Lady Nijo’s kimono look like prisons. Such clothing indicated luxury – the luxury of not performing manual labor. Her 80’s designs reflect the 80’s trend toward men’s attire. Women were entering the workforce in droves. They needed to look like men to be taken seriously by men. Even heels were a type of weapon. Cho’s historical accuracy is admirable.
The extra-special highlight came later in the evening: listening to old, white men make noises of discomfort during the emotional third act when Churchill’s sexual politics stop being nice and start getting real. Tommy’s Tops Girls goes from a quirky play everyone can enjoy directly into a show just for the ladies.
The Huntington’s Top Girls is a production worth seeing even if it is the third production in Boston in four years. Kiddos, it’s not the drag sex comedy you think it is. Tommy’s direction draws out the nuances that many theatre’s can’t budget around such as finely detailed period costuming, and handmade props. It does so even on a wide, flat stage with almost no levels. The cheap seats will watch backs, and lose some of the action but that’s what you get for being cheap.
New England is home to many talented actors. The Huntington hired only one of them for this production (Plum). Please consider this information when purchasing tickets.