Review By Judith Robinson
When Pope Joan, powerfully played by Claire Jullien, in Shaw Festival’s production of ‘TOP GIRLS’ tells her tragic tale of being dragged off by the heels and stoned to death, the audience hardly took a breath. It was the most poignant moment in the play. No one moved as Jullien talked about unexpectedly giving birth on horseback during a religious pageant and exposing herself as that unacceptable human form—female. Although the production is filled with passionate, desperate moments, nothing could compare to that alleged heart-wrenching tragedy from the 9th century,
but it could just as easily have happened today. Any woman can attest to the fact that being a woman at the wrong time in the wrong place can get you killed—emotionally if not physically.
An on edge energy permeated the whole all-female production. Woman after woman—character after character—reached a fever pitch of frustration, anger, even rage. It didn’t matter that there weren’t any men on stage. British playwright, Caryl Churchill, in her 1982 masterpiece, points a strong finger of blame at our male-dominated culture merely by exposing the victims. The actors played several different roles—but they all portrayed the same characteristics—abandoned, lonely, grief stricken and wounded lying strewn across the stage.
There were some tender moments. Lead character, business manager, Marlene, skillfully played by Fiona Byrne, manages to connect with her estranged sister, Joyce, played by Tara Rosling, for a few snippets of conversation about their troubled past. But then it’s back to the battle lines.
Jullien is every bit as riveting and engaging as head hunter, ‘Win’, in the second half of the play, and her repartee with her associate, Nell, played by Catherine McGregor, touches on the humorous and sympathetic. But these wounded characters seem unable to authentically connect with anyone—even other women.
There is a truth underlying the desperation that is palpable and disturbing. Conditions for women aren’t as good as we would like to pretend they are. Churchill strikes a nerve that resonates just below the surface—like a tooth ache.
Top Girls is playing at the Court House Theatre until September 12th.