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"Top Girls" at Fells Point Corner Theatre

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Rachel Blische
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  Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see "Top Girls" at Fells Point Corner Theatre. 

"Top Girls" is up until April 27.

The Rousuck Review: "Top Girls" at Fells Point Corner Theatre

A businesswoman named Marlene celebrates her promotion by hosting a dinner party in her own honor. She invites five women, real and fictitious, from throughout history. The eclectic guest list ranges from a 13th century Japanese courtesan to Pope Joan, the 9th century woman who disguised herself as a man and may have briefly served as Pope.

That’s the opening scene of British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play, “Top Girls.” At Fells Point Corner Theatre, director Richard Barber’s brisk dinner party staging gets Churchill’s fragmented play off to a lively start. His actresses establish their characters’ distinct personalities and rise to the script’s tough demands for overlapping dialogue.

Cori Dioquino, as the Japanese courtesan, and Annette Mooney Wasno, as a 19th century Scottish explorer, prove particularly adept at this. They almost constantly talk over each other as they compete for attention. And Helenmary Ball delivers the best performance I’ve seen her give as Dull Gret, the hell-raising subject of a painting by Breughel.

Even in this colorful company, however, it is Robin Zerbe’s portrayal of Marlene, the dinner party hostess, that gives the scene – and the entire production -- its spark. Marlene demurs when the others congratulate her on her comparatively pedestrian achievement -- becoming managing director of an employment agency. But the actress leaves no doubt about Marlene’s high opinion of herself. 

The rest of the play’s scenes are naturalistic and take place in 1980s England. At the office, Marlene behaves more and more like a man in a man’s world. She puts work first – definitely ahead of family, and her politics are the politics of the self-interested right; Margaret Thatcher is her hero. 

Playwright Churchill is no fan of Thatcher, and as the play progresses, Marlene becomes a thoroughly unsympathetic anti-hero. She is heartless toward the desperate wife of the co-worker she beat out for promotion. She is completely dismissive of her struggling, working-class sister, played by Tessa Blische. And she’s hypocritical, at best, in her behavior toward her purported “niece,” who is given an affecting portrayal by Anne Shoemaker.

Director Barber adds a few touches, with mixed results. Having the stage manager announce the scenes feels awkward, but covering the walls with a version of Andy Warhol’s Thatcher portrait is a powerful image, and having various cast members perform 1980s British pop songs provides a nice added commentary during scene changes.

By the end of “Top Girls,” we realize that few of the women at Marlene’s initial dinner party would break bread with her if they really knew her. None of the subsequent scenes is as creative – on the page or at Fells Point Corner Theatre. 

As to playwright Churchill’s point about the behavior of women in management – thankfully, it now feels dated. Unfortunately, her point about corporate greed still rings true.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.