Theater Review: Theatre Pro Rata Brings Shoulderpads-Era Caryl Churchill to the Crane Theater With “Top Girls”

Theater Review: Theatre Pro Rata Brings Shoulderpads-Era Caryl Churchill to the Crane Theater With “Top Girls”

“You’re a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot!”

Even acclaimed playwright Caryl Churchill had her work cut out for her trying to match 9 to 5 screenwriters Patricia Resnick and Colin Higgins in lucidly critiquing ’80s workplace sexism, but it always needs to be said once more for the people in the back.

Theatre Pro Rata embrace the Thatcher-era setting of Churchill’s Top Girls (1982) in a focused, humane new production at the Crane Theater — a venue that recently played host to the Twin Cities Horror Festival, so its black matte walls are absorbing plenty of dread this season.

With contemporary music setting the scene and performers costumed (by Eleanor Schanilec) in outfits that evoke the times without condescending to played-out leg-warmer stereotypes, director Carin Bratlie Wethern turns the clock back four decades to an era of British history where anyone who’s been absorbing this year’s copious Princess Di content has been spending a fair amount of time.

The play, which in many assessments sits near the top of the prolific playwright’s lauded oeuvre, centers on Marlene, played by Maggie Cramer with subtlety and conviction. Marlene’s recently been promoted to head of the Top Girls employment agency, where she not only needs to navigate her own career and the choices she’s made in prioritizing her work, but also guide a steady stream of women looking to land better positions for themselves.

Marlene and her agents (Megan Kim and Nissa Nordland Morgan) err on the side of brutal honesty when counseling applicants about realities including ageism and the dangers of letting prospective employers know too much about your plans for having a family. The seemingly hard-headed Marlene does have broader reflections on the injustice of it all, though, as we learn in a famed opening scene in which legendary women convene in her imagination for a wine-thirty dinner party.

Wethern’s strong ensemble cast carries this scene, as well as the others, with perfect aplomb. Sarah Broude heads the table as the iconic Pope Joan, while Emily Rosenberg’s badass Dull Gret uses her few words well. Ninchai Nok-Chiclana, who’s kept hopping as a server keeping the thirsty ladies’ wine glasses filled in the opening scene, later shines in two additional roles: a frank child and a job-seeker with a particularly creative résumé.

The show’s powerful concluding scene is a family reunion as Marlene visits her sister Joyce (Kelsey Laurel Cramer, convincingly weary) and niece Angie (Rosenberg, grippingly enthusiastic). While the opening scene underlines the universality of patriarchal oppression, the final scene feels very specific to its place and time, including the suggestion that the upwardly mobile Marlene has succumbed to yuppie conservatism. Today, you’d imagine the rural Joyce being an anti-vaxxer who blows up over Marlene allowing Angie to get a poke of AstraZeneca during her London visit.

If you’re vaccinated yourself (cards are checked at the door), this accessible, absorbing production is ample reason to pause the endless content stream and check in again with thought-provoking live theater. It still feels thrillingly novel to see people together onstage again, and this top-notch Top Girls cast make the most of the opportunity.

Jay Gabler

Photo: Maggie Cramer in character as Marlene (Charles Gorrill, courtesy Theatre Pro Rata).