Top Girls' is challenging, 'mercurial' examination of post-feminist issues facing women

If you're interested in a nice, clean examination of feminism or post-feminism, with lines drawn clearly and dialogue that provides answers to all your questions, Caryl Churchill's “Top Girls” is probably not for you.

The Otterbein University Department of Theatre & Dance presents “Top Girls,” which assistant professor and director Lenny Leibowitz called a “brain-bruiser,” this weekend and next. “The play is so challenging and mercurial,” he said. “It's like mercury, where you put your finger on it and loose beads of mercury split and travel and reconnect.”

The play concerns sisters Marlene and Joyce, who have made distinctly different choices about how they want to live their lives. Their story is preceded, though, by a surrealistic first scene in which “figures from legend and history sit down at dinner with” Marlene, Leibowitz said, in a “radical messing around with dramatic forms and time frames.”

Among Marlene's guests are Isabella Bird, 19th-century English author, and Flemish folk hero Dull Gret, who, as depicted in a 16th-century painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, leads an army of women into hell to fight the devil. “That opening scene sets up that you have to watch this play with fresh eyes,” Leibowitz said.

The rest of “Top Girls” concerns the sisters, particularly Marlene's climb up the corporate ladder, which addresses issues of success and feminism as she leaves her illegitimate child with Joyce to pursue her career. Written and originally produced in 1982, the play's themes remain topical.

“Talk about a play that has something meaningful to add to contemporary discourse. The topicality is so self-evident right now, as we speak, this minute,” Leibowitz said. “It has topicality fused with timelessness.”

Churchill's script recognizes the challenges society presents to women, refusing to cast the matter as a dichotomy between abiding or breaking the glass ceiling. “Top Girls,” Leibowitz said, features multiple fault lines and a “shifting moral center.”

“It's an entertainingly dramatic, socially blistering story, but [Churchill is] not going to tell it the way you want it,” Leibowitz said. “It's important that there is this very powerful sense of refusing to rush to judgment or reduce characters to ‘good' and ‘bad.'

“It presents a view of post-feminism that is not one thing or another but is divided against itself.”