‘Girls’ Tales Intrigue

Jackie A. Hatala

Marlene (Cassie L. Fliegel ’06) and Pope Joan (Emma Firestone ’05) dine.

The seven-member all-woman cast of HRDC’s Top Girls did full justice to a solid script by British playright Caryl Churchill Saturday night at the Loeb Ex.  Although the British accents were at times forced, and the pace dragged near the beginning, the cast and crew warmed up by the second act, exhibiting superb acting and directing.

Top Girls explores relationships between women in the changing modern world where they are often faced with the choice of being a good wife and mother or a successful career woman.  Animosity combined with grudging admiration pervades many of the relationships between the women of one group with the other.  The plot centers around Marlene, a now-successful career woman who at age 17 left her home and an illegitimate child with her older sister to pursue something other than the domestic humdrum she seemed destined for.

The play opens with a celebratory dinner for Marlene, who has just received a promotion over a man at her job with a career placement agency in London.  Her guests are five women from the past:  Isabella Bird (Adele Jerista), the world traveler, Lady Nijo (Scottie Thompson), a former courtesan in the Japanese court, Pope Joan (Emma Firestone ’05), the only woman to ever hold the papal office, Dull Gret (Emily J. Carmichael ’04), the subject of a Bruegel painting, and Patient Griselda (Sarah E. Curtis ’05), the obedient wife from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The women not so much share their stories over the dinner table as try to one-up each other with their experiences.  Although the setup for the scene was promising, this act waned compared to the others.  With so many characters competing for prominence, it was at times a head-splitting experience to grasp the importance of each, especially when combined with the distractedly noisy entrances and exits of the waitress (Alex H. Bush ’06) and the sporadic rotation of the dinner table.  While the rotation of the table, and hence, the position of the characters was an innovative solution to a challenging staging problem, it proved to be too much to stomach at once.

Jerista and Thompson at times were guilty of overacting in the first act during their fight for prominence. Carmichael’s presence was a welcome one in her ability to express physically what the others seemed to have difficulty with on a verbal level.  Firestone’s Joan was tastefully well done—the entire theatre came to a standstill as she described the details of an unexpected childbirth and subsequent death with an eerie calm.

Subsequent acts speeded up relative to the first act’s lagging pace.  It turns out that the dinner guests were merely figments of Marlene’s imagination, elements of her psychological struggle for peace with her past.  The same actors reappeared in acts two and three, representing people in Marlene’s real life.  The versatility of the actors were an especial boon to the production.  Props go to Thompson for an effortless transition and continuity between her roles. Cassie L. Fliegel ’06 as Marlene was solid but uninteresting in the first act, but Fliegel’s subtlety turned out to be a true plus.  The contrast between the successful career woman and the struggling inner self was all the more poignant as Fliegal’s acting progressively expanded in depth.

Imaginative sets added polish to a well-thought-out performance.  Bravo to cast and crew for a job smartly done with an extremely challenging production.

—Crimson arts reviewer Mildred Yuan can be reached at yuan@fas.harvard.edu.