A tall silhouette of a figure with broad shoulders takes the stage. As the lights emerge, the sound of clicking heels fills the theater, and Marlene is revealed — not a man, but an independent, working woman of the ’80s. She holds herself with a confident gait and a strong demeanor.
Norm Johnson, director of Ithaca College’s upcoming production of “Top Girls,” said he strives to prove through characters like Marlene that though we live in an age of change and social advancement, the world’s social stigmas have yet to be resolved.
“What I wanted people to see is that there are these moments where women, and especially men, think that equality has been achieved and the battle of the sexes, or the fight for equal rights and recognition, is over and done,” Johnson said. “I think it’s akin to people saying now that we have Obama for president that all the racism in America is past tense. … My vision for the show is that the dream is not dead, the battle is not over, and we have to remain conscious.”
“Top Girls” touches on heavy themes, specifically sexism, and was originally written in response to Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power as British Prime Minister in the ’80s.
The show tells the story of an independent woman who tries to succeed in a man’s world. The successful businesswoman, Marlene, is promoted above her male co-workers. The story examines her circumstances and what she’s given up in life and love to obtain her success.
Senior acting major Vanessa Sterling, who plays Marlene, said the message of the play is a vital aspect of the production.
“[Marlene’s] done everything she can to distance herself from her past and her family where she came from,” she said. “The director is focused on making sure every story is told clearly and that it all mixes together to create this one woman, while at the same time displaying archetypes of brands of women.”
Junior costume designer Madison Ryckman said she designed the costumes to embody the powerful female theme.
“We played a lot with warm and cold,” she said. “Like a warm, inviting, feminine world, especially for the dinner scene and the women that she works with. And sort of a colder idea for Marlene. She’s rejected what it is to be a woman.”
Ryckman said the audience should expect to see big belts, big hair, shoulder pads and loud colors on stage.
“It’s definitely a time warp,” she said. “The women [on stage] really have embraced the idea of the ’80s.”
Sterling said it was a challenge to develop her complex character.
“She’s a very strong character,” she said. “But at the same time, she’s kind of covering up this immense, emotional baggage, so it’s hard to kind of work with all of the possibilities.”
The opening scene of the play is presented as a dream sequence where Marlene has a dinner party with famous women in history. Some are fictional, such as Dull Gret, the subject of the Pieter Bruegel painting “Dulle Griet,” depicting a woman leading her female neighbors to the pits of hell to fight evil. Other women include Pope Joan, the only alleged female pope, as well as Lady Nijo, a Japanese Emperor’s courtesan.
For Johnson, this scene, which runs about 50 minutes, is what makes the play a particularly interesting theatrical challenge.
“I’m hoping that [the audience] will be able to make the connections between the stories and the experiences of the women that Marlene invites to the banquet,” he said. “Every one of those women explains a piece about who Marlene has become.”
Ryckman said the combination of bold and colorful costumes, Johnson’s organic directing process and the talent of the cast and crew makes this show a great opener for the college’s main stage season.
“It’s fierce,” she said. “It’s about these strong women. It’s about the masks we wear every day. No matter what, you come to the show, and you are going to talk about it afterwards.”
“Top Girls” will be performed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Oct. 10 and Oct. 20 to Oct. 24, with 2 p.m. matinees offered Oct. 11 and Oct. 24, in the Clark Theatre in Dillingham Center.