SVSU’s “Top Girls”: Pain, Passion, and Progress in the Evolution of Women

Reviewer: Lisa Purchase Kelly

Venue: Malcolm Field Theatre

Bech·​del Test | \ ˈbek-dəl-

Definition : a set of criteria used as a test to evaluate a work of fiction on the basis of its inclusion and representation of female characters.

The usual criteria of the Bechdel Test are (1) that at least two women are featured, (2) that these women talk to each other, and (3) that they discuss something other than a man.


“Top Girls”, written by Caryl Churchill in 1982, may be the Bechdel Test winner of all time (and pre-dates the first appearance of the Test, by three years). An all female cast of twelve interacts vociferously, and seldom is a man mentioned. In contrast with how women in fiction have traditionally been portrayed (mainly identified by their relationship to a man, and rarely discussing anything else), these women effectively represent whole people with whole lives; careers, accomplishments, passions, flaws, feeling, and relationships with the greater world around them. Men happen; they do come up … but they are in no way the focus or purpose of these characters.

Act I takes liberties with Time to bring together a dinner party, hosted by the contemporary character Marlene (played by Lexie Shultz) and attended by Pope Joan from the mid-800s (played by Alyssa Yankee), Lady Nijo, a courtesan/Buddhist nun from the 1200s (played by Aimie Ji), Patient Griselda, who appears in Chaucer’s late-1300s Canterbury Tales (played by Katerina Sorokina), Dull Gret, who is the subject of a painting in the 1500s (played by Kee Ferguson), and Isabella Bird, who traveled the world in the late 1800s (played by Briellé Myles-Williams). Their layered, dense conversation perfectly mimics an enthusiastic and slightly drunk celebration as they excitedly talk over one another and reveal their triumphs and tragedies in solidarity with the modern Marlene at the center of it all. In retrospect, they all seem to be part of the same person, or individual facets of the collective evolution of Woman.

Their rapport is aided and abetted by the technological wizardry of projected backdrops and live-action camera-work mostly brought about by the talented and increasingly necessary Lucas Inman, a fourth year SVSU Theatre student who has invested heavily in learning and developing technical advances for productions here. In this case, he used the 3D-modeled gaming system Unreal Engine to create original content that gives each character their own architecture, flowing from one background animation to the next as onstage focus transitions from character to character. Shadows and lighting, the movement of sun and clouds work together to create a whole virtual environment to enhance the characters in front of it. This beautiful backdrop is topped by live projections of the actors (coordinated by Assistant Director Abbey Kuhns), echoing and spotlighting their own actions behind them.

Difficult to describe (after Lucas’ explanation of the technology, I turned to the director and said, “Please translate what he just said.” After his explanation, which involved the word “vector”, I turned to my partner – a science teacher – and said, “Please translate what HE just said.”), but well worth seeing. SVSU’s productions are really pushing the envelope of technological enhancement lately, taking bold and confident steps into the future of theatre.

Acts II and III behave in a more linear fashion (although the third Act does take place a year before the second), and introduce the modern characters Angie (played by Scout McCullough), Kit (played by Caroline Temple), and Joyce (played by Katelynn Bell). The ensemble is rounded out by Holly Grief, Yolhie Dahana Monchery, and Jordan Rose (as well as all the actors who played the previous historical roles) filling in the population of Marlene’s Top Girls Agency office staff and patrons. It is not until Act III that the various threads of the modern characters are drawn together and their stories and connections become clear. The complex interactions and emotions expand and contract, sometimes spreading out incomprehensibly, and sometimes dwindling down to a single quiet point that burns clear through the cacophony. 

The characters and storytelling are enhanced by gorgeously appropriate costumes, and the cast capably utilizes dialects and accents that help distinguish their characters. I have to give a shout out to first-time dramaturg Jaden O’Berry for the helpful historical context of the Thatcherism era in which this piece was written, and to the entire production team for tackling (and mastering) this complex show.

SVSU’s production of “Top Girls”, directed by Tommy Wedge, runs Wednesday through Sunday (April 6 through 10). Shows begin at 7:30pm (3:00pm on Sunday). 

Important tip!! Get there early enough to do some homework. Get there in time to: 

  1. Take in and appreciate the table setting outside the theatre doors. Read the placards at each chair. Absorb and contemplate this microcosm of the roles assigned to women throughout history.
  2. Read the Playbill, cover to cover. Read the little histories of Lady Nijo and the others. Read the Director’s Note. And for the love of God, read the Dramaturg’s Note.
  3. Pre-Pre-show bonus homework: listen to (and watch) Sheena Easton’s 1982 Thames TV performance of “Modern Girl” (see Director’s Note when you get to the program). Context.

You’re going to need all the help you can get. Once the show starts, you’re going to have to hang on for dear life just to keep from drowning in the flow of images, information, words, and emotions. Doing this prep work is the life-raft you’ll need to stay afloat.

Enter into this production with an air of trust that at some point things will start to become clearer, and agree to just go with the flow and be awash in the tide of this fantastical but down-to-earth postmodernist feminist piece of theatre.

Running April 6-10 (7:30, 3:00 on Sunday), tickets to SVSU’s “Top Girls” are $15 and can be purchased online at https://www.etix.com/ticket/v/14187 or at the box office one hour before showtime.

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