The opening act of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 “Top Girls” is still breathtaking as women ranging from the ninth-century Pope Joan to 13th-century concubine Lady Nijo and Victorian-era explorer Isabella Bird gather for a vivacious dinner party hosted by a modern employment agency manager who is celebrating a promotion. The final act of Thatcher-era class warfare knifes into our Trumpian divisions as sharply as anything in Jon Robin Baitz’s absorbing new “Vicuña.” It’s a masterful work.
In the new Keegan Theatre staging, director Amber Paige McGinnis guides her cast through the choppy waters of that sometimes hilariously busy and fantastical first act. These women all have vivid stories to tell and no shortage of opinions.
The give-and-take has a musical swing as Susan Marie Rhea’s bold Isabella Bird charges into conversations, Alexandra Maria Palting’s Lady Nijo gets interrupted a lot and Caroline Dubberly — reliably getting laughs with grunted one-liners — quietly pillages the table as the warrior Dull Gret, swiping full wine bottles and hiding the bread. The party is rounded out by Jessica Lefkow’s smooth, commanding Pope Joan and Amanda Forstrom’s meek Patient Griselda, who seemingly lets her husband put their two children to death.
That’s a theme: the outrages perpetrated by men that in some cases were fatal. Things seem better for modern women as Churchill pivots to the 1980s, but then you get an earful of the prickly interviews at the London job placement agency. Shrewdly, the plot zeros in on the newly promoted Marlene (a brusque Karina Hilleard) and her poor suburban sister Joyce (Rhea, shrugging off the bravado of the explorer Bird for an all-too-real single mother’s exhaustion). Dubberly persuasively changes from Dull Gret to Angie, Joyce’s Visigoth-like 15-year-old; Angie slowly emerges as the real object of Churchill’s attention.
The plaintively designed production doesn’t look as good as it could, and two Helen Reddy songs during transitions are notably awkward. But the acting is sensitive and intelligent, especially in the imaginative opening act and during the earthy, realistic sisterly showdown of Act 3, which crackles with surprisingly up-to-the-minute political friction.
The job in Alana Valentine’s “The Ravens” is the oldest profession, and like “Top Girls,” the play explores women exploiting women against a large misogynist backdrop. Kira is trying to quit “the life” and hard drugs; Marg is a bird of prey angling for the money Kira just won in some sort of settlement.
Nina is a new social worker who takes up for Kira; we learn about the struggles of sex workers through Nina’s naive eyes. It’s a straightforward drama, blunt about Marg’s violence and clear-eyed about how frightened and manipulative people like Kira can be. As Kira, Suzanne Edgar keeps you hooked in Venus Theatre’s intimate storefront production, which features a pole for pole dancing in the middle of the small stage.
Directed by Deborah Randall, Edgar does the good-girl-bad-girl thing well enough to have you rooting for her and then despairing. Valentine laces her play with one of Shakespeare’s poems, but the drama’s strength is how clearly, especially in Edgar’s understated contradictions, it depicts this victim’s dilemma.
Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Amber Paige McGinnis. Set, Matthew J. Keenan; costumes, Alison Samantha Johnson; lights, Laura J. Eckelman; sound design, Justin Schmitz and Gordon Nimmo-Smith. With Daven Ralston. About 2 hours and 45 minutes. Through Dec. 2 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets $45. Call 202-265-3767 or visit keegantheatre.com.
The Ravens, by Alana Valentine. Directed by Deborah Randall. Lights and set, Amy E. Belschner Rhodes; costumes, Deborah Randall; sound, Neil McFadden. With Erin Lee Hanratty, Alison Talvacchio and Ashley Zielinski. About 100 minutes. Through Nov. 26 at the Venus Theatre Play Shack, 21 C St., Laurel. Tickets $40. Call 202-236-4078 or visit venustheatre.org.