Entertainment » Theatre

Cloud Nine

by Maya Phillips
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Sunday Oct 4, 2015
Lucy Owen and Izzie Steele
Lucy Owen and Izzie Steele  

There is no dearth of the words I could use to describe a Caryl Churchill play: bizarre, hilarious, incisive, biting. That's just the thing -- Churchill is a master at tackling any number of great "isms" (e.g., racism, colonialism, feminism, etc.) from a number of different angles, whether it's through rhymed song, dramatic irony, dramatic monologue, or time and character shifts. Her play "Cloud Nine" is certainly no exception.

Act I of the play takes place in a British colony of Africa in Victorian times. Clive (Clarke Thorell), fully invested in his service to the country and the crown, is there with his family: his wife, Betty (Chris Perfetti, in drag); son, Edward (Brooke Bloom, in drag); mother-in-law, Maud (Lucy Owen); and young daughter, Victoria (portrayed as a doll roughly thrown from one character to the next); as well as the governess, Ellen (Izzie Steele) and African servant, Joshua (played by white actor Sean Dugan).

With the tumult of African civil war in the background, the family -- along with Joshua -- performs its noble duties to its country by living amongst the "savages." When Harry Bagley (John Sanders), Clive's friend and the valiant explorer, and Mrs. Saunders (Izzie Steele), a neighbor and fellow colonist, arrive, some of the family's hidden secrets and desires are revealed, transforming the act into somewhat of a sexual farce. There is no shortage of misogyny, homophobia and racism throughout, so blatantly over-the-top that it's both comical and depressing at the same time.

Act II leaves Africa behind and jumps to London in 1979, though for the characters only 25 years have passed. The actors switch roles, portraying older versions of characters we saw in the last act, as well as a few new ones. An older Edward (now played by Perfetti), an older -- and now animate -- Victoria (Owen) and an older Betty (now played by Bloom) must once again confront the issue of gender expectations and now the effects of the sexual revolution -- while also reconciling themselves with the past.

The Atlantic Theater Company's revival of the play, directed by James Macdonald, really gives it its due. Playing at the Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea, this production is set up to be performed in the round. The usual rows of seats are replaced by wooden bleachers with seat cushions -- not the most comfortable seating for a show that runs for two hours and 45 minutes, but at least Atlantic Theater Company gives its audience members fair warning on its website.

Despite the uncomfortable seating it presents, the set is very clever, lending itself to the intimate feeling of the play as well as the various quick entrances and exits. After all, nothing makes a play feel more like a textbook farcical comedy than theater in the round -- actors running on and off stage, occasionally missing each other, switching roles, etc.

The actors in Churchill's plays typically have a tough job to face -- not only must they switch roles, but they must also balance Churchill's Janus-faced combination of humor and bold-faced critique. The postmodern jumps in setting also challenge the imagination, but those jumps never take you so far out of the realm of understanding that they lose their meaning.

Thorell ably portrays the bastion of masculinity and the oppression of patriarchy via Clive in the first act, but then frolics ridiculously in a dress and pigtails as the young girl Cathy in the second act. Perfetti becomes the embodiment of Betty's insecure womanhood -- her wish to be "what men want" -- in the first act, but in the next act becomes Edward, who, in a meta implication of the actor having portrayed a woman in the first act, so desperately tries to act as a woman in his relationships with other men -- a stereotype called out by his lover.

Bloom's drag portrayal of the young Edward-an ironic, hetero-normative casting that contradicts Edward's homosexuality -- is touching and well-done, particularly in the moments when Edward is pushed to fall in line with a traditional view of masculinity.

Bloom also artfully acts as the older version of Betty, sympathetically presenting her as lost, still clinging onto her old-world views of sexuality and gender while facing the changing world around her. She struggles with her independence, gets flustered by the idea of her children's sexual freedom (as well as her own), then reaches realization.

While sexuality and gender expectations are certainly Churchill's main interest in this play, the themes of racism and colonialism are also particularly poignant. Dugan's Joshua is painful to watch, his embodiment as Dugan serving as the literal, visual portrayal of the character's internalization of the racist colonialist mentality. Joshua's lines about his people (who he calls "bad people") and his village's mythology ("bad stories") is nothing if not heartbreaking.

Again, for as much comedy as Churchill has written into this play, there is also tragedy. The sounds of war are constantly in the background, as an effect of colonialism: In the first act, it is Africa, and in the second, it's Ireland. The violence is more shockingly prevalent in the first act, while it is mostly white noise in the second, mentioned only briefly as one character learns of her brother's death.

It's unfortunate that the specific racial treatment of the first act is not sustained in the second, but Churchill seems more interested in balances of power as a whole -- but particularly as it pertains to gender and sexuality. In a broader cultural and historical context, less feels at stake in the second act, though the personal evolution of the characters certainly make the ending feel fulfilled and emotionally resonant.

"Cloud Nine" runs through Nov. 1 at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St. in New York. For information or tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit atlantictheater.org.

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