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BWW Reviews: TOP GIRLS Invites Discussion at Fells Point Corner Theatre

The refurbished Fells Point Corner Theater in historic Fells Point has been bringing culture to Baltimore since 1987, when the Corner Theater merged with Fells Point Theatre, right in the center of the 200 block of South Ann Street. It produces shows you won't see at your local high school. This is a good thing.

In the programme notes, FPCT proclaims its dedication to avoiding "overproduced" shows. Playwright Caryl Churchill's TOP GIRLS is overproduced in exactly no sense of the word.

The script is exceedingly British. The majority of the characters adopt British accents. The script, in fact, would make little sense done in any other accent. There's British phrasing, British idiom, British interaction and reference to British politics of the 1980s. I admit to ignorance of world politics: I have difficulty keeping up with the kerfuffles of my own backyard, and couldn't tell you what was going on locally in the '80s, other than the Colts left town, Mayor William Donald Schaefer went for a dip in the seal pool and the Orioles won the World Series. England?

The programme tells me that the Warhol woman repeated across the backdrop is Margaret Thatcher. At intermission, the upstairs lobby displays information about the obscure characters we met in the first sequence. The stage manager reads aloud the set change stage directions. I have concerns about a show that feels it needs Cliff notes for the audience.

If only the script had been arranged upside down, I'd've liked it better. From a surrealistic dinner party opening, we delve into non-linear vignettes of the lives surrounding that of our main character, each one increasingly depressing and banal. This is, I assume, the goal of the playwright- to highlight the chasm between haves and have-nots, that being female means agonizing sacrifice, and that all choices are either bad or worse. It seems simplistic to say the theme of the show is inequality in the workplace...but it is, if you expand your idea of "workplace" to include home-making and child-rearing, courtesanship or travel-writing. The bleak ending is deliberate, and there's no getting away from it for actor, director or venue.

The set is not quite sparse enough for true minimalism, but is modular and lightweight, with actors performing set changes in half-light. The changes are done quickly, and inexplicably accompanied by an actor singing an unrelated acapella song.

The costuming is appropriate for both period and character, and includes details that perhaps would be lost on casual observers. 13th century Pope Joan's ensemble is lushly accurate, and Lady Nijo, also 13th century, wears a beautiful red kimono with two-toothed geta sandals. Teenaged Angie's denim skirt has a ragged hem, and Nell wears plaid office trousers.

Marlene, the main character, is played in a coldly excellent fashion by Robin Zerbe. The other eight women in the cast have multiple roles- I particularly enjoyed Amy Miller's resonant voice rolling the complicated philosophies of Pope Joan, and Helenmary Ball's wild-eyed antics as Dull Gret. Annnette Mooney Wasno transitions from Victorian adventuress Isabella Bird to the more contemporary Louise so thoroughly I didn't recognize her. Tessa Blisch convincingly tackles the thankless role of bitter, angry Joyce, and Cori Dioquino glides from courtesan to child to bitchy officemate with enviable ease. It's a shame that this sturdy cast must compete with a script fraught with anxiety and directorial choices that lengthen rather than abbreviate the show.

Despite- or perhaps because of- its fragmented miseries, the script invites discussion and consideration. It certainly meets the qualifications as one of the "interesting, underproduced" works FPCT is committed to staging.

TOP GIRLS runs on the upstairs stage of Fells Point Corner Theatre through the 27th of April: Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 South Ann Street, Baltimore, MD, 21231. Visit for tickets.

Photo by Melika Carr, courtesy of Fells Point Corner Theatre.

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