Photo by Don Kellogg

Friday, October 2, 2015

Cloud Nine

Having seen one of Caryl Churchill's other plays (Top Girls), I was prepared for the jolt of anachronism, intentional gender bending casting, and other theatrical devices.  Ms. Caryl does it well.  Her choices serve to facilitate and highlight her messages.

In the case of Cloud Nine, she casts a white man as a black slave, a man as a Victorian wife, an adult as a child, and young boy as a woman (and vice versa).   Further add the fact that Act I occurs in Victorian times during British colonization of Africa and Act II occurs in 1979 London - with the catch that only 25 years have passed for the characters - who themselves have been "re-cast" as other characters.  This may seem like quite a lot to keep track of, but the effect is subtle, the impact quite large as you begin to see the larger message Ms. Caryl is trying to convey.   What she is effectively doing is showing how the male dominated society and dominant and oppressive nations in the Victorian era (The Brits dominated and conquered the natives in Africa) draw a parallel to the modern society where the gay culture is experiencing the very same treatment - it's a different cultural construct, but the same effective oppression.  At the same time we see the importance and oppression of the female characters both literally and figuratively in Act I by the casting of a man as the Victorian wife.

The actors in this wildly fluid comedy execute Ms. Caryl's message with aplomb.  First and foremost we have the adorable and ethereal Chris Perfetti  is the face of the gender fluidity playing Betty the Victorian Wife in Act I and Edward a softer gay man in Act I.   Sean Dugan takes on the racial fluidity in Act I as Joshua the slave/servant and the dominant gay predator Gerry in Act II like it was a role of a lifetime made just for this handsome and confident ginger.  Izzie Steele takes on double duty in Act I (extra kudos here for all those costume changes) as a rag-tag shy and naive nanny and the powerful (which is unusual for the period) female Mrs. Saunders. In Act II she is a powerful and confident lesbian.  Clarke Thorell is the ultimate patriarch and family leader Clive in Act I and the naughty, loud child Cathy in Act II.  Brook Bloom has the other gender bending role playing young Edward in Act I and older Betty in Act II.  Lucy Owen plays a staunch and comically dry Maud the mother of Betty in Act I and the young Victoria (who as a side note was played by a doll in act I) toying with her lesbian side in Act II.  John Saunders is the suave single explorer Mr. Harry Begley who just might be gay before it was en-vogue to be gay and then plays the suave yet diminished husband Martin who's masculinity is on the decline in the era where women are on the rise.

If you're confused, don't be.  When you watch the action unfold, the character changes start to resonate, the messages start to decode and you will begin to delve into the issues that Ms. Churchill was trying to convey.  As billed, it is a play about power, politics, family, queen Victoria, and sex.  If perhaps Act I was a tad bit too long with a bit of unnecessary exposition and story, Act II was perfectly timed, executed and impactful.  Without a doubt, there was one element of this production that was universally panned by the audience - and that was the seating.   While the idea of placing this show in the round in somewhat of a "boxing ring" where the actors "duke it out" is brilliant - the construction of the flimsy, uncomfortable, and frankly cheap looking wooden bleachers was only made more painful by the 2H:40M run time.  #seatingepicfail 

Despite the extremely uncomfortable and frankly unsafe seating arrangements that were constructed  for this production, the outcome was nothing short of remarkable.  A fine cast and a provocative message makes for an exhilarating evening in the theatre.