OKC Theatre Company takes on feminist epic Top Girls 

click to enlarge ?Megan Montgomery, Kaylan Ferrell, and Zaneen Hotchkiss during a rehearsal of Top Girls at the Civic Center Music Hall, Wednesday, April 27, 2016. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • ?Megan Montgomery, Kaylan Ferrell, and Zaneen Hotchkiss during a rehearsal of Top Girls at the Civic Center Music Hall, Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

Over the years, OKC Theatre Company has carved out a reputation for tackling risky, high-energy modern theatre in its cozy basement playhouse.

Self-described “New York-style theater” OKC Theatre Company has brought a little bit of everything to the underbelly of Civic Center Music Hall this season. From Steinbeck’s somber Of Mice and Men, the season’s opening play, to Silence! The Musical, a profane and hilarious musical parody of The Silence of the Lambs, audiences know that hit or miss, they’re going to see a company swing for the fence.

The tiny stage and snug setting don’t leave much room for devices like props and sets, so OKC Theatre also evolved into one of the best places in the city to see stripped-down productions that lean heavily on theme.

In a perfect example of its chutzpah, the company’s brave players tackle Top Girls, the 1982 Caryl Churchill drama that artistic director Rachel Irick calls a feminist epic.

Centering around Marlene, a driven, career-minded Brit who hosts a dreamlike dinner party for famous women from history, Top Girls addresses the question of what it means to be a successful woman and contrasts the differences in American and British feminists, explores the social status of historical female icons and provides commentary on Margaret Thatcher.

“Not too much about the opening scene seems too out of the ordinary until the guests start to arrive,” Irick said. “They appear as a collection of obscure women from history and literature.”

Guests include Pope Joan, who disguised herself as a man and became pope around AD 854; Isabella Bird, a Victorian-era explorer; Lady Nijo, an 11th-century Japanese concubine; Griselda, the long-suffering wife from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales; and Dull Gret, a peasant from Flemish folklore who leads an army of women to pillage hell.

Another drawback/advantage to OKC Theatre Company’s intimate space is that the number of characters in any given production can often be too big for the stage, so actors play multiple roles. A rotating cast of characters in a nonlinear play can be difficult enough even with a full roster, so Top Girls again provides a challenging experience for players and patrons.

“In the shorter scenes that follow, the actors reappear, but this time, they’re women in Marlene’s office and her adolescent daughter,” Irick said. “The play really weaves complex scenes together and examines the colliding worlds of career versus traditional family roles. It also sometimes reveals a world where even in the absence of men, women still oppress each other with patriarchal expectations.”

It’s weighty stuff, to be sure, but Irick said Churchill’s script strikes a deft balance between gravitas and silliness. The interaction between the slightly inebriated female icons is some of Irick’s favorite writing in the play, and she thinks audiences will appreciate the levity.

“They try to one-up each other with colorful stories, all in various stages of drunkenness,” she said. “Pope Joan dissolves into pseudo-Latin phrases while trying to balance her papal tiara on her head.”

Top Girls opens Friday, and a $10 preview night is Thursday. The play runs through May 22. Visit okctheatrecompany.org for more information.

Print headline: Top play, OKC Theatre Company looks at the way women oppress each other in Top Girls.

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