Pulse Ensemble Theatre, a 40-member ensemble founded in 1989 by British actress and director Alexa Kelly, opened its eighth season with a revival of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls running through Nov. 17 Off-Off-Broadway on West 42nd St.
Churchill's famous 1982 comedy/drama, a play by a woman, about women of the past and present, serves as a warning to women of the future.
It begins in a London restaurant where famous female historical personages gather to trade stories and advice. Dinner guests include Pope Joan; 13th Century concubine and Buddhist nun, Lady Nijo; and Patient Griselda, the obedient wife written about by Chaucer, Boccaccio and Petrarch.
Act two switches suddenly to modern times, exploring the life of Marlene, a woman who works at the Top Girls Employment Agency and then comes home to cope with her sister, who's of a different class and political mindset, yet has raised Marlene's daughter as her own.
Top Girls will be directed by Kelly and feature an 11-woman cast: Christine Jones, Susan Barrett, Elizabeth Cloe, Sydney Davalos, Joyce DeGroot, Stephanie Fybel, Ivana Kane, Susan McGeary, Elizabeth Rothan, Claudia Traub and Inger Tudor. Pulse Ensemble generally tries to break up its six-play season into two classics, two modern plays, and two original works. They've staged the NY debuts of such plays as William Mastrosimone's Shivaree and Paul Minx's Worm In The Heart. Unafraid of being political, Pulse "strives to present and develop works that expand the author's awareness of the human and social condition."
Director Alexa Kelly, daughter of a Greek mother and a Scottish father (she calls herself "the product of two great fallen empires"), trained at London's Central Drama School. After getting her theatre PhD at Florida State, Kelly hosted a PBS television show and ran a drama program in a Federal prison for men.
Years of teaching and directing in Florida, Atlanta, Michigan and Pennsylvania (Literary Manager for Philadelphia's Walnut Theatre, 1991-93) paved the way for Kelly's founding of the Pulse Ensemble. With its political themes, as well as its funny and tragic elements, Top Girls dovetails very well into the Pulse's aesthetic.
"It's both political and about women's issues -- issues women are still dealing with today," Alexa Kelly told Playbill On-Line. "A woman getting ahead in a career is considered a bitch, not just by men, but by women, too. They don't respect or help her, because it's inbred that only men get ahead."
Asked whether the first, historical act really fits together with the modern drama of the second, Kelly admitted that she'd seen the play years ago and felt completely left out of act one. "It was very distanced, and I really had no idea what they were talking about. That's why I wanted to go back and make the connections. I was told that the Public Theatre production was much darker, and the characters weren't very sympathetic. There's a lot of pain here, even though it's also very funny."
The dramatic issues at stake are even stronger in the second part. "I tried hard to avoid having the two sisters' argument turn into a screaming match. It's really about that mix of love and pain, where you're afraid to hug someone you love because you're afraid you'll burst out crying. Even the more comic interview scenes [at the employment agency] have an emotional jolt at the end."
For tickets and information on Top Girls, which runs to Nov. 17, call (212) 695-1596.
-- By David Lefkowitz