Saturday, October 10, 2015

Cloud Nine

Cloud Nine, Caryl Churchill's brilliant riff on sexual politics, colonialism, identity, and love, is receiving an excellent revival at the Atlantic, directed with a sure hand by James Macdonald. As the Playbill explains, "Act I takes place in a British Colony in Africa in Victorian Times. Act II takes place in London in 1979. But for the characters, it is 25 years later." This is not the only device that Churchill utilizes. Women are played by men, and vice versa; a doll plays a baby; a white man plays a black man. Years before people wrote about "performing gender," Churchill made the concept unmistakably vivid.

Chris Perfetti as Betty, Izzie Steele as Ellen
Photo: Doug Hamilton
In Act I, Betty, the mother, Clive, the father, Edward, the son, Victoria, the daughter, and Maud, Betty's mother, live in Africa, where Clive happily and pompously takes on the "white man's burden." He sees himself as the adult in all situations, and the others, including Clive's "boy," Joshua, seem to agree. But Betty chafes under her limitations; Joshua is not what he seems; and Edward wants to play with dolls. Enter Harry Bagley, the dashing, and omnisexual, explorer, along with a "native uprising," and all assumptions start to fray.

In Act II, Edward is now a grown, semi-closeted, mostly gay man; Victoria is a bisexual feminist married to a "sensitive man" who is too busy touting his sensitivity to listen to anyone (and who is writing a book about women from the women's point of view); and Betty is finally breaking away from the rules that have circumscribed her life. Their lives are significantly more liberated, but liberation has its costs. No matter what, life is never simple.

Before going further, some personal history about the play. A tale of three Cloud Nines:

Original Off-Broadway production 1981: LGBT people have no rights. Coming out is still risky and sometimes stomach-churningly frightening. Realistic portrayals of genuine, contemporary LGBT people are virtually nonexistent in theatre and movies. In a few months, the New York Times will publish an article about a "rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals." Cloud Nine opens in Greenwich Village (and soon after it, March of the Falsettos). Cloud Nine tells the truth about the complexity of sex and presents people you might meet living in the neighborhood. Tommy Tune directs it with sly wit. It is astonishing, an oasis in the desert, food for starving people, [fill in cliche here]. In short, it is a gift.

Original Off-Broadway Cast With Director Tommy Tune (Center)
San Diego Rep production 1985: The political situation in the U.S. is much the same, but 1985 San Diego is much more conservative than 1981 Greenwich Village. Cloud Nine is directed as Sexual Politics 101, and its outrageousness is tamped down a bit. The show remains brilliant. Streams of people walk out during the cunnilingus scene.

Off-Broadway revival 2015: Same-sex marriage is legal in the United States (although in many states people can be fired from jobs or denied housing for being LGBT) and 20 other countries. In many locations, coming out is ho-hum. LGBT people are represented much more often in books, movies, TV, and theater. Fun Home wins five Tonys. Cloud Nine is now a slice of history, yet still a gift, still relevant.

I was nervous about seeing this production. Cloud Nine is one of my three favorite plays (the others: Arcadia and A Streetcar Named Desire). It needs an excellent director and cast to avoid deteriorating into a cartoon. In addition, seeing it in the early '80s was part of my coming out and my becoming an adult. I saw it multiple times, bringing friends, all of whom were thrilled. Could it live up to my memories?


Let me get the negatives out of the way: Performing Cloud Nine in the round adds little, and, damn, those seats are uncomfortable (and arguably dangerous). The production lacks the shining polish and perfect timing of the original. Many laughs are lost. The play's faults are more evident now: some draggy scenes, the lack of performers of color (this last is the most serious fault, I think, particularly in a show that skewers colonialism). I was disappointed at some of the changes Churchill has made in the play over the years.

Okay, that's done.

Here are the positives: Under Macdonald's direction, the strong cast (Brooke Bloom, Sean Dugan, Lucy Owen, Chris Perfetti, John Sanders, Izzie Steele, and Clarke Thorell) brings complete sincerity to even the silliest moments. The first act is calibrated perfectly to be farcical yet somehow real. The second act completely embraces the time and place. No one winks at or judges the characters; the performances are done with love.

Most importantly, it's Cloud Nine. The past years have been full of second-rate or flat-out-bad major revivals that feel they have to "improve" on the originals: A Little Night Music cast with actors too young for their roles; Arcadia directed with no respect for intelligibility; Streetcar presented as about Cate Blanchett rather than about Blanche DuBois; an overly literal interpretation of All My Sons. But this production is done with full respect to Churchill's brilliance.

It's strange to live long enough for a favorite play to morph from immediate and contemporary into historical. I'm glad the transition has happened in such good hands.

(full-price tix; third row; extremely uncomfortable)

1 comment:

Wendy Caster said...

The San Diego Rep production was directed by Sam Woodhouse. (Thanks to tandelor on All That Chat for tracking down this information.)