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BWW Review: TOP GIRLS at American Conservatory Theatre

American Conservatory Theatre kicks off its 2019-20 season, intriguingly titled "Rules of Play," with this sensational revival of Caryl Churchill's magnum opus, Top Girls. We explore society's rules for women over the centuries, and here's a perhaps unsurprising spoiler alert: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

BWW Review: TOP GIRLS at American Conservatory Theatre
Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Marlene (Michelle Beck), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), and Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal) in Top Girls

Churchill begins in absurdist fashion as 80's-era working woman, Marlene (Michelle Beck), hosts a dinner party to celebrate her recent promotion. Among the invitees are historical and fictional women from throughout the millennium and across the globe: the first female pope who faces dire consequences when her gender is discovered, a British explorer, a 13th-century Japanese concubine, and a warrior who leads her troops into hell in a Flemish painting. Over three courses they one-up each other with stories of their improbable rises and falls, leading to Patient Griselda's (Monique Hafen Adams) heartbreaking account of the unspeakably cruelty her husband forced her to endure to prove her loyalty to him.

We are then plunged into Marlene's life as she takes the helm of a high-powered recruitment firm, while her sister, Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe), raises Marlene's daughter, Angie (Gabriella Momah), as her own back home in Essex. When Angie comes to London to visit Marlene unexpectedly, family resentments come to the surface as Marlene must confront the price others have paid for her success. The spectre of Margaret Thatcher looms large over the second act, though she is only mentioned in its closing moments, as the role of women in leadership and a capitalist society are explored through their most intimate effects on everyday lives.

BWW Review: TOP GIRLS at American Conservatory Theatre
Nell (Summer Brown) and Win (Rosie Hallett) inTop Girls

Director Tamilla Woodard incises every nuance of Churchill's sharp and witty script with the precision of a cardiac surgeon, balancing moments of hilarity with those of abject sorrow. Her players' stories overlap and weave with pitch-perfect pacing, and every silence is earned. It's this failure to listen and learn from each other--to finally unite in sorority--that so hauntingly condemns these women to the same fate again and again, a theme echoed in the sisterly showdown yet to come.

Woodard benefits from a superb cast, helmed by Beck, who captures the power and ambition of Marlene, at one point silently wrapping herself in Pope Joan's robes as if they might just suit her. Her confrontation with Monroe is riveting, each playing archetypes of the polarization in Thatcher's England with a real humanity and grit. Summer Brown crashes about as Dull Gret to great comedic effect before a devastating recounting of her march into hell, and Hafen Adams is also a highlight as Griselda, and later as a wife who pleads for Marlene to let her husband take her promotion--at once absurd to our modern sensibilities, but then painfully sympathetic as she quietly adds "he takes it out on me."

BWW Review: TOP GIRLS at American Conservatory Theatre
Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe) and her sister, Marlene (Michelle Beck) in Top Girls

We are transported through time and space with Sarita Fellows' vibrant costumes, as well as Nina Ball's captivating set that lends a blank canvas to the more ethereal first act before adding a level of detail that helps ground the more modern scenes. Barbara Samuels' lighting design adds to the harshness of the corporate world and adds to the gravitas of the play's final moments.

With exceptional direction, a brilliant and moving cast, and a script that is painfully relevant, this Top Girls is top-notch.

Top Girls continues through October 13th at A.C.T.'s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are available at the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or online at

Photos by Kevin Berne.

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