‘Top Girl’ in a man’s world
Huntington comedy examines capitalism, equality and womanhood
In “Top Girls,” opening April 20 at the Huntington Theatre Company, ambitious Marlene has just received a major promotion over a male colleague. To celebrate, she hosts a dinner with six famous, rule-breaking historical women. Throughout dinner the dramatically different women bond over their experiences fighting to be a “top girl” in a male dominated world.
Though contemporary women may not be able to call up a crucified female Pope from the middle ages or a Japanese concubine turned Buddhist nun for a glass of wine, the underlying issues of sacrifice, unfulfillment and lack of acceptance ring unnervingly relatable.
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For more information about the production and cast of “Top Girls,” visit: www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2017-2018/top-girls/
The diverse cast and guiding hand of South African director Liesl Tommy bring an additional layer of meaning to the show’s theme of rising up. Tommy says the play’s content allowed her to cast actors of color in roles that historically may have been white. “I don’t think this play is about whiteness, I think it’s about women,” she says.
In a rehearsal two weeks ago, Tommy told an anecdote about her work at the Sundance East Africa Theatre Director’s Lab wherein a white man blamed her for not informing him that the African directors could carry on intelligent conversations. She used this dually racial and gendered anecdote to further a group discussion of why the characters make the decisions they do.
Jamaica Plain native Carmen Zilles, who plays Marlene, says she’s drawn much of her inspiration for Marlene’s strong, confident character from watching Tommy direct. Marlene comes from a working class background and has sacrificed substantially in other areas to become wealthy, and to distance herself from her lower class roots. Through this dynamic, economics play a large role in the play.
Caryl Churchill wrote “Top Girls” in 1982 as a critique of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, but Tommy says it’s only become more important with age. “So many young people, and this transcends class, are questioning the capitalist system,” says Tommy. “Caryl Churchill was questioning that when we were in the rawest state of capitalism.”
Zilles draws a parallel between Marlene’s dual upper and lower class identity and the actress’s own experience as a Latina in America. For Zilles, she’s one person at home with her mother in Mexico, and another working as an actress in New York City. She applies this double identity to her portrayal of Marlene, and indeed, the diversity of the cast brings additional complexity to the discussion of womanhood and socioeconomic status.
Climbing the ladder of power as a woman is a brutal and sometimes unrewarding task, whether in 500 A.D. or 2018. And no matter what time period, the climb is easier with the kinship of women who have been there.