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Theater Review:

"TOP GIRLS," Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play, "Top Girls," opens with an animated but muddled "Meeting of the Minds"-style dinner party reuniting influential women from history and ends with a heartwrenching contemporary confrontation between two sisters struggling with the choices they’ve made. It is precisely that final explosive scene that best illustrates the challenges still faced by women whether they opt for careers in the professional world or as stay-at-home moms. Too bad it takes so long for the play to find its blisteringly relevant center.

Fortunately, Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s astute and impeccable production at Victory Gardens Theater – directed by insightful artistic director James Bohnen and featuring some of the most gifted actresses in the city – transcends Churchill’s tendencies to preach, go off on deliberately baffling tangents and generally say more than she needs to. Audiences unfamiliar with the British playwright’s intensely non-linear style might think they were watching at least four different plays.

It cannot be denied that the opening dinner-party sequence, hosted by avid Thatcherite and newly appointed director of the Top Girls employment agency (Marlene), is an unrepentantly witty theatrical tour de force. Over lots of wine and gourmet food, five historic figures share their triumphs and their regrets.

They are: Isabella Bird, an 18th century Scottish explorer; Lady Nijo, a 13th century courtesan to the Emperor of Japan and later a Buddhist nun; Pope Joan, the 9th century prelate believed to have disguised herself as a man to reign as Pope for two years; Dull Gret, the armor-clad housewife portrayed fighting the devils in hell in Brueghel’s famous painting; and Patient Griselda, the psychotically obedient wife whose story is recounted in Chaucer’s "The Canterbury Tales." In short, they represent the different aspects of womanhood.

But the problem with this lively opening sequence is that, in her efforts to recreate natural conversation, Churchill has these women interrupt and talk over each other. Ideologies, moral arguments and touching recollections all but evaporate – or get abruptly cut off – before they can be adequately processed. And just as forcefully, Churchill yanks us out of the past and into a modern-day employment agency for the next scene. Then she throws us into a troubling conversation between a teenage girl Angie (who plots to kill her mother and/or go visit her Aunt Marlene in London) and her much-younger best friend Kit. This scene made me think of the disturbing film, "Beautiful Creatures."

Although some of the contemporary characters are loosely connected to the historic women, they are basically separate beings dealing with new issues in an era (the 1980s) where padded shoulders were a powerful, de rigeur visual symbol of surviving in what was still considered a man’s world. Nevertheless, Churchill’s extreme polarities come with their own distasteful male-bashing fervor, which does not ring with as much truth as it may have 20 years ago.

The pieces of this peculiarly structured puzzle begin to fall into place in the second act, which unites Angie with her "Aunt" Marlene (who turns out to be her real mother). When Marlene pays a visit to her estranged and embittered sister Joyce (who raised Angie), the true sacrifices made by these women gain a glaring immediacy. The final confrontation between the sophisticated but guilt-racked Marlene, who sought to escape from her brutal home environment, and her worn-out sibling serves as a brilliant and devastating exploration of personal expectations, limited opportunities and lives battered by either over-achievement or lack of hope for a better future.

Remy Bumppo’s stellar all-female cast features the eternally captivating Tracy Michelle Arnold as the omni-dimensional Marlene; the always astonishing Annabel Armour as Joyce and Isabella Bird; Manao DeMuth as the measured Lady Nijo and rebellious Kit; Susan Bennett as the solidly grounded Dull Gret and emotionally lost Angie; Kati Brazda in revelatory multiple roles; Tasha Anne James as an exuberant Pope Joan and as a tragic middle-aged woman searching for work; and Linda Gillum in a variety of roles, including the obliviously ethereal Patient Griselda and as a catty power woman dripping with red rouge and red lipstick.

Scenic designer Tim Morrison – aided by Joel Moritz’s sculpted lighting -- has created an inventive unit set that quickly moves from a trendy restaurant to a high-gloss office to a tenement. Judith Lundberg’s period-perfect costumes are as engaging and provocative as the performers wearing them.•

Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s production of "Top Girls" has been extended through January 27 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $22.50-$25.50. Call 773-871-3000.

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