Culture & Conversation

Top women for a tip-top play

Leni Parker and Laura Condlin in Top Girls. Photo by Andrée Lanthier.

Leni Parker and Laura Condlin in Top Girls. Photo by Andrée Lanthier.

Estrogen permeates the air at the Segal Centre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. The all female cast of seven balances its last all male cast of seven in the testosterone-laden production of David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross. Shades of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers!

The controversial first scene of Top Girls features a reception for Marlene, the head of an employment agency, wherein the guests are a pot-pouri of famous women of history (recalling Judy Chicago’s installation piece, The Dinner Party). Marlene (Laura Condlin, a Stratford Shakespeare alumna) is the very model of a modern Margaret (Thatcher) type of woman.

Her guests, in historical order, are:

Pope Joan, 854-856 (Lauryn Allman, an NTS alumna), the reputed female pope who was stoned to death when found out.

Lady Nijo, 1258-1307 (Leni Parker, with a long list of local creds), a courtesan to the Emperor of Japan, later a barefoot Buddhist nun.

Patient Griselda, circa 1370 (Lucinda Davis, most recently God in Book of Bob), the ultra obedient wife in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Dull Gret, circa 1562 (France Rolland, Mecca winner for Medea) is the personage Dulle Griet (aka Mad Maggie) in Breughel the Elder’s painting.

Isabella Bird, 1831-1904 (Julie Tamiko Manning, most recently Emilia in Othello), a turn-of-the-century world traveler.

This stand-alone surrealistic scene, perhaps the best detachable act from a longer play since George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell within his four-act Man and Superman, is felt by some as too disjointed from the rest of the drama.

I, however, found it wonderful. Its dense play of ideas strings along the long attempt of women to survive in a male-dominated world, the latest manifestation of which is some women emulating men in action in order to succeed, as does Marlene (and Thatcher?).

This amazing collection of actors then morphs into contemporary women caught between individualism and societal cooperation.

Ms. Parker becomes Joyce, Marlene’s poor rural sister, who is raising Angie (Ms. Allman), an aimless teen who fantasizes that her successful aunt might be her real mother.

Ms. Davis and Ms. Manning emerge as two no-nonsense agents at Top Girls (the name of the employment agency) as they interview a series of unemployed youthful types. The one older applicant is quietly and impressively portrayed by Ms. Rolland.

A word about silences: Amidst the dense and clever barrage of dialogue, two of the best moments are the silences exhibited by each of the sisters after a heated argument between them as they collect their thoughts alone with nary an audience peep.

Director Micheline Chevrier, who has been chalking up some fine efforts, adds another notch to her record, ably assisted by, gasp, a man…popular actor Graham Cuthbertson.

And finally, a further word for two backstage heroines, casting director Rachelle Glait and dialect coach Rea Nolan. Both are sometimes overlooked in the long list of superb technical and artistic folk who labour mightily in Alvin Segal’s theatrical garden.

Top Girls continues until May 18. For info and tickets call 514-739-7944 or visit their website.


Byron Toben is a regular Rover theatre critic.

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