ART’s Top Girls Showcases Top Female Talent

by Holly Griffith

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a big play. Big personalities, big themes, big scenes. David Morden directs Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production deftly, and while the production has weak moments, this cast does an impressive job juggling a complex web of characters, navigating difficult dialogue rhythms, and bringing the evening to a harrowing climax.

The play opens with a challenging scene, where the central character Marlene, played by Rebecca Galcik, hosts a dreamlike dinner party for six women from history. Some are real historical figures, some are characters from folklore, but all arrive with stories to tell. Churchill writes the scene to be fast-paced, with many lines overlapping, as the women discuss their relationships with men and children, their adventures around the world, and their thoughts on religion and philosophy. It is a feast for anyone who has yearned for the advice and wit of those who have gone before us. Given the pacing, the larger than life personalities, the odd theatrical conceit, the difficult subject material, and the four different dialects used onstage, this is an extremely difficult scene to pull off, and a few moments were lost in the shuffle. As someone unfamiliar with the play, the scene was somewhat hard to follow, and I wished Morden had encouraged a slower pace and more demonstrative blocking where possible, especially near the beginning of the scene.

The remaining scenes of the play, however, are worth the wait. The play shifts time, place, and theatrical style, and we get a glimpse into Marlene’s life as a successful businesswoman, and the challenges that come with being a woman at the top. Six of the seven actors play entirely new characters, some of them multiple new characters, and Morden’s casting is masterful. Each actor slips into the skin of someone new, while retaining thematic vestiges of the dinner party scene. Elana Richardson’s Pope Joan character transforms into Joyce, the working class sister of Marlene. Richardson remains stoic, like her papal counterpart from scene one, but adds a downtrodden jadedness more appropriate for Joyce’s socio-economic situation. Eavan Clare Brunswick portrays the Scottish explorer Isabella Bird in the first scene with a proud earthiness, and later becomes Mrs. Kidd, a woman who tries to protect her husband’s job by desperately attempting to unseat Marlene from her high-powered position. While the earthiness of Isabella vanishes, the boldness and sense of pride remains. It was a joy to watch these shape-shifting women command the stage with ever more nuanced performances.

Perhaps the most exciting transformation is in the hands of Maggie McNeil. She arrives at the dinner party as the folkloric Dull Gret, a nearly-mute spud of a woman dressed in battle armor, who seems primarily concerned with getting more to eat. McNeil, with few lines, becomes a highlight of the scene, radiating with childlike curiosity and coarse table manners. The scene ends with an engrossing description of Gret’s brutish invasion of hell. In the following scenes, McNeil plays the devilish teenager Angie, who resents Joyce’s tough love approach to parenting. She captures the feverish energy of teen life without too much wackiness. McNeil’s Angie is magnetic, radiant, and frightening. McNeil plays two characters whose humanity is interrupted by violence, and she strikes that balance beautifully.

The final scene of the play between Marlene and Joyce is also stunning. Galcik and Richardson know this scene inside and out. The two sisters argue over the central problem of the play—Angie is really Marlene’s child, but was raised by Joyce. The two navigate the would-have, could-haves of their past, unearthing resentments and illustrating the nearly impossible situation that Womanhood has put them in. Their dialogue flows like a river, hitting high points and low points, splashing against barriers and overflowing with rising tension. The two perform the scene with an excellent handle on the rhythms of the language and the vulnerability of their characters.

A word on the technical elements of this piece. Allison Morones has a huge job costuming 7 actors as 16 characters, all of whom change clothes, and most of whom change hairstyle. With few missteps, the costumes fit seamlessly into their world. Even the myriad wigs, which can be distracting if not used well, are consistent in their strangeness. They function similarly to masks in this production, giving a tongue-in-cheek nod to the double-casting in the play. Additionally, director David Morden achieves an almost impossible feat of coaching at least four dialects, ranging from Scottish to Japanese. While some actors handled dialect more naturally than others (Eavan Clare Brunswick has executed 3 different dialects this season, all masterfully), I was impressed with the consistency and range of dialects onstage.

I want to take a moment to praise ART for producing not one but two plays this season with all-female casts. The technical and design team for Top Girls is also a majority of women. It is empowering to watch women hold space onstage for an entire evening, and it gives female artists a chance to work together in ways that are rare in the performing arts. At the same time, I wish the University had more female directors. While I applaud Morden’s work on Top Girls, it also occurred to me that white men will direct almost all the main stage productions at ART this season. I hope that the University will consider diversifying their staff, especially when it comes to faculty with directing qualifications.

Top Girls runs at Arizona Repertory Theatre through Sunday, February 24th. Tickets are available online through the ART box office: 520-621-1162 or theatre.arizona.edu.

 

Editor’s Note: While Holly is an adjunct instructor in the School of Theatre, Film, and Television, she has no relationship with any students involved in Top Girls, personally or professionally. Additionally, Holly has worked professionally with David Morden. While this does not impact how a performance is reviewed, we feel it is important to disclose any potential biases.

A ‘Modern’ Take on Moliere’s Classic Scandal, “Tartuffe”

by Felíz Torralba

Pima Community College’s Center for the Arts presents Moliere’s Tartuffe, a comedy about Orgon, a wealthy Parisian patriarch who falls under the influence of Tartuffe, a hypocrite and conman.

Scarlett Sky was enchanting as Elmire. This young woman has incredible focus and engagement. She always seemed to have an internal dialogue. Watching her made me feel excited as an audience member. Though, similar to Miller, I feel that she could have been “aged up” a bit. Taylor Hernandez, who played Mariane, reminds me of a lovely Juliet. I really sympathize with her character. She was heartbroken that her father was forcing her to marry Tartuffe and successfully showed the audience her frustration and outrage. My only criticism is that anger was the primary emotion she really showed us. I really would have liked to have seen more sadness, confusion, and maybe even a little sarcasm – this would make Mariane more rounded and relatable. Bianca Regalado, who played Cléante, had very impressive physicality. She took us on a journey and worked hard to clearly get her points across. She really showed me Cléante. Enunciation and vocal energy was a bit weak. Nevertheless, she was engaged and attentive to each scene she was in. Chris Farnsworth as Tartuffe had consistent low energy, low volume, and looked bored when he wasn’t talking. He did not embody Tartuffe. He did not make choices, or play with the audience, or take advantage of this amazing character. He did not tell us a story. In all honesty, Farnsworth was a bit difficult to watch. Gianbari Deebom, who played Madame Loyal, is a force to be reckoned with. She is so powerful and executed her performance perfectly. She was laser focused and balanced acknowledging the audience and being present in the scene seamlessly. She left me wanting more!

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Tartuffe, art courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

After reading Chris Will’s director’s notes* I was disappointed with his brief and seemingly careless commentary. His text elicited a lack of interest and it just didn’t seem like his heart was in it. This reflected in Pima’s production of Tartuffe. These young performers are oozing with talent and potential. I just don’t think they were given the proper guidance. This is a fantastic show for students to study and perform. Performing a farce is not an easy task, the actors have enough on their plate just by navigating the story and taking the audience with them. As this is educational theatre, each student definitely could have used more help with character analysis, identifying/utilizing iambic pentameter, and other basic skills like projection, cheating out, and breaking the fourth wall for comedic effect. “Don’t expect this to be a historical play,” writes director Chris Will. With all due respect to the director, this is a historical play, and if claiming a ‘modern twist,’ I felt it needed more components. It lacked follow through, and seemed to make a complicated play even more complicated. Even the actors didn’t appear able to bridge the gap between a classical text and a ‘modern twist’.
During the time this play was written (1664) women were seen as inferior objects. This is obviously not a modern way of thinking. This is a play about a man, written by a man, and directed by a man. Perhaps finding a creative way to highlight the women’s struggle and their opinions would have added a more modern vibe. The cast is following what’s in the script, and many of the situations these characters go through is very prominent in today’s politics and society – I definitely made those connections and still would have made them without electronic music awkwardly sprinkled throughout the play.
There were 7 women and 6 men in the cast. I couldn’t help but think, what if the role of Tartuffe was played by a female-identifying individual? Now that would have been a game changer. I think the gender breakdown of this play could have been tastefully tweaked. What if the role of Elmire was played by a male-identifying individual? Switching one of those two roles could have added an LGBTQ acknowledgement to the story. I think if this play was supposed to “relate to the modern audience’s struggle,” this could have been one tactful choice to take that point and run with it. Tartuffe is supposed to be risqué, sexy, and “cause quite a stir.” Perhaps making a creative choice like ‘gender-bending’ would have achieved that with a modern audience.
When the show started, I was pleasantly surprised by a dance with modern, french music. This was very a creative way to catch the audience’s attention and introduce the actors. The sound was high quality and the lighting color choices looked very thoughtful, elegant, and bright. Unfortunately, this same dance strategy and music was used to transition between scenes and didn’t seem to produce the same effect as when first presented. It got old rather quickly. The actors looked confused when dancing – not all of them were committed – and it made me feel confused as well. The dance should have been used only at the beginning and maybe after intermission.
There were moments of internal thought for a few characters. This was done by pre-recorded dialogue and a spotlight while the actors used facial expressions to tell the audience their thoughts. This was very distracting and just didn’t really work.
The costumes and the set were absolutely stunning. Everything looked really expensive and elegant. I wonder if the costumes and set were modern, perhaps this would have made the director’s vision of a ‘modern’ day Tartuffe’ more clear.
I did not leave the theatre feeling moved or inspired. The one thing I truly walked away with was joy because it’s a beautiful thing to see actors of color performing classical theatre. This made me very happy. If anything, come to this show to see passionate young men and women having fun up there! We just don’t see that enough these days. You will definitely be entertained here.
To purchase tickets, go to https://pima.edu/cfa or call 206-6986. You can see the show from now until November 18th at 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 2:00pm on Sundays in the Pima Community College (PCC) Center for the Arts Black Box Theater.
* “This sardonic comedy, set in the era of King Louis XVI of France, caused quite a stir when it opened, creating an exposé of the times. Don’t expect this to be a historical play! Be prepared for some surprises as this old story unfolds and relates to the modern audience’s struggle to make sense of today’s politics, society, and family values.” – Chris Will