October 28, 2015

"Cloud Nine" Takes Off Again

Cloud Nine made the great British playwright Caryl Churchill's name when it was first produced in London back in 1979. And when it moved to New York a couple of years later, it won an Obie for Best Play and became a touchstone for a generation of theater lovers awed by both its inventive form (it not only juxtaposes two time periods but requires men to play non-campy female roles—and vice versa) and its then-bold content (gimlet-eyed examinations of colonialism, feminism and gender identity). 

Yet I was nervous about seeing the revival which ends a month-long run at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater this weekend, thinking it might be too brainy or weird. And this isn't the first time I found myself intimidated by the prospect of seeing a Churchill play. 

I felt the same way about the revival of her 1982 Top Girls, which had a brief Broadway run in 2008; and her most recent work, Love and Information, which played at New York Theatre Workshop last year. But I ended up loving both those productions. And I'm now, albeit belatedly, cheering this one too.

The first act of Cloud Nine takes place in an African country under British colonial rule during the Victorian era. Clive, the local British administrator, reigns over the natives and over his domestic household, which includes his young wife Betty (who is played by a man) their two children (the boy is played by a female actor and the daughter by a doll)  a governess, Betty's visiting mother, two friends seeking refuge from local native uprisings and a Gunga Din-like black servant, who is played by a white actor.

Everyone, except the doll, is having secret affairs that cross age, gender and race boundaries. And yet almost everyone is dissatisfied with his or her life, with the notable exception of Clive, who blithely enjoys the privilege of his whiteness, his maleness and his straightness.

But Churchill has always been an unabashed feminist. In the second act, the place and time change to the London of 1979 in the full bloom of the women's and gay liberation movements. Some of the same characters from the first act are there but they've aged only 25 years, underscoring Churchill's point that society's attitudes toward women and gay people remained stuck in the Victorian era until after the social upheavals that followed World War II.

The actors also switch roles in the second act. The actor who plays Betty in the first act now plays her gay son. The actress who played the son as a boy now plays a middle-aged Betty. Tellingly, no version of Clive appears at all, an indication of the disappearing power of the old white male hegemony.

The gender-bending and role reversals may sound confusing but James Macdonald's sharp direction makes them easy to follow and the performances by the show's seven-member cast are across-the-board superb.

Each actor really deserves to be name checked but I have to single out Brook Bloom, who so thoroughly embodied the quiet ruefulness of the older Betty, who can see the new opportunities—professional and sexual—that are opening up for women but coming too late for her, that she took the curtain call with tears still in her eyes at the performance I attended.

But the production doesn't get everything right. I can't help wishing that Macdonald had cast some actors of color, particularly in this play where having a white actor play a black character was intended to make a political statement. Having a black actress play the role of the governess (who in the second act becomes a radical lesbian) would have been totally in keeping with that progressive audaciousness.

And then there's the seating. The regular seats inside the Linda Gross have been ripped out and temporarily replaced with wooden bleachers. The Atlantic has acknowledged how butt numbing they are by making cushions available to people who ask for them. Even so the people sitting behind me (and a handful of other folks) opted to leave at intermission. 

It's too bad they didn't stay because the power of the play comes in seeing the two acts and thinking about how much further we've come even since then.

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