TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill, directed by Alisa Palmer, with Diana Donnelly, Megan Follows, Kelli Fox, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Cara Pifko, Liisa Repo-Martell and Robyn Stevan. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (55 Mill). Previews through July 2, opens July 3 and runs to August 4, Monday-Saturday 7:30 pm, some Wednesday and Saturday matinees 1:30 pm. $32-$59, stu $28, rush $20, youth rush $5. 416-866-8666. Rating: NNNNN
Who hasn't fantasized about a fabulous dinner party with the most scintillating guests, real and imaginary?
You know, where you just sit back and listen to Maggie Smith discuss tricks of the trade with Sarah Bernhardt, or Shakespeare's Cleopatra give advice to Shaw's younger version of the Egyptian queen. Such a fantastic meal is central to British writer Caryl Churchill's groundbreaking 1982 play Top Girls, which resonates with as much dramatic electricity today as it did a quarter-century ago.
The first scene is a party thrown by Marlene, who's just been promoted to a senior position in the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests include a Japanese courtesan who became a Buddhist nun, a Victorian woman who became a world traveller in her 40s and the male-disguised Joan, thought to have become a ninth-century pope.
Add in Griselda, a character from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and Dull Gret, a figure painted by Bruegel, and you've got an astonishing group.
"That scene is a version of Marlene's shattered psyche," says Cara Pifko, who plays the Griselda figure and also, like most of the production's other actors, people in Marlene's life.
"She's brought together these women from history and fiction, maybe in a dream or her imagination, and the talk over dinner is a wonderful set-up for what's going on in her mind."
"It's an incredibly bold piece of writing," nods Ann-Marie MacDonald, whom we first meet as Pope Joan
. "After that fantastical and highly theatrical start, a buffet of theatre, Churchill pulls us into a naturalistic close-up of Marlene, with no fanfare, exposing the grit of what her life is really like.
"Churchill trusts the audience to keep in their psyches, their hearts, their minds what's discussed in the first scene, for it all comes up later with shocking force. She mixes the styles so seamlessly."
After that opening scene, we see Marlene in the workplace and on a visit to her small-town birthplace. With not a man in sight, the focus in these scenes is on office and family politics, and we discover what Marlene's had to give up to move ahead in a male world.
But it's the dinner scene that's most striking, with overlapping dialogue and stories told sometimes on top of each other.
"Actor Robyn Stevan says it's as if all of Tamara were happening at once," smiles stage and screen performer Pifko, referring to the John Krizanc play in which audiences choose which characters to follow through a large house.
"Here, you select which bits of the dialogue to listen to, as if you're wandering through a party catching snippets of conversation.
"During rehearsals we've been sculpting the lines so the audience doesn't just get a wash of people talking over each other."
"Stylistically, the script is reminiscent of Mamet," picks up MacDonald, "but Churchill was writing this way earlier. There's a strong beating heart at the centre of Top Girls, but it's one of the most unsentimental scripts I've come across.
"Even in rehearsals we find ourselves crying by the end of the play, because the characters' struggles are so hard and so many limbs are lopped off along the way."
It's clear that dialogue and debate are central to director Alisa Palmer's rehearsal process. Pifko and MacDonald talk to each other as much as to me, clearly revelling in the working relationship begun when they performed together in MacDonald's play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet).
"It's easy to focus on the feminist aspect of the play," notes Pifko, whose work was one of the strengths of TV's This Is Wonderland, "but Churchill's is a universal story that speaks to lots of issues, including the difference between how you see yourself and how others perceive you."
"That's Marlene," agrees MacDonald. "For some she's on a success track, for others she's victim. Both are true; though Marlene's in extraordinary pain all the time, she functions well and doesn't give it out."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Ann-Marie MacDonald and Cara Pifko talk about the play and feminism.