Cloud Nine Review: Sex, Identity and Discomfort in Three Eras


Audiences are finding the revival of Cloud Nine at the Atlantic Theater uncomfortable, but not in the same way audiences did in 1981, when it was Caryl Churchill’s second-ever play in New York, and her first big hit; directed by Tommy Tune, it ran for more than two years, paving the way for a dozen more of her inventive comedies, most recently the clever Love and Information last year.

Three decades ago, audiences were surely made dizzy by a play that took place with the same characters in two eras a century apart; equated sexual and gender politics with colonial imperialism; expanded the concept of color-blind casting to become both age-blind and gender-blind; and brought sexual coupling on stage to new heights, or depths, offering so many different combinations as to approach a form of mathematics.

By contrast, the present-day audience has been complaining about how uncomfortable the seats are. The theater has constructed wooden bleachers to make this production in-the-round, prompting so much disgruntlement that the management now acknowledges it on their website (rather lamely: “…While the bleachers are cushioned, some of our audience members have found them less comfortable than our usual theater seats. We welcome you to bring a favorite pillow or small cushion to make your seat personally comfortable for you.”)

It does seem rather perplexing that the Atlantic would go to so much effort and expense to discomfort their customers, but I’ve never found this theater especially consumer-friendly. (Don’t ask about my farcical attempts to attend Between Riverside and Crazy, which I finally was able to see only because it transferred to Second Stage.)

I had no problems with my seat even though the play is almost three hours, and I enjoyed this entertaining production, with its seven impressively versatile cast members energetically directed by James MacDonald (who also directed Love and Information.) That the play remains relevant I find beyond dispute. But a third era intrudes on the proceedings – our current day – adding a perspective that’s not always complimentary to the choices made by the playwright or the director.

Act I is set in colonial Africa in the Victorian Age, and focuses on the very British Clive (Clarke Thorell), a colonial administrator, his family and his servants. It would be too confusing to describe fully the various relationships and (sexual) interactions of the characters; it takes the whole act for us to absorb it all. To give just a taste: Harry Bagley (John Sanders) describes himself as an explorer, but the bodies he explores are not just of water. By the end of the act, he has had sex with Clive’s son, Clive’s wife and Clive’s black servant. Just in case that’s too clear, the playwright decreed that Clive’s son Edward be played by an adult woman (in this production, Brooke Bloom), Clive’s wife Betty by a man (Chris Perfetti), and Clive’s black servant Joshua by a white man (Sean Dugan.) His affair with the schoolboy discovered, Harry is hurriedly married off to the child’s governess Ellen (Izzy Steele), who has her own reasons for a quick wedding – she’s a lesbian who declared her love for Betty.

Act II is set in London in 1979 (which is when Churchill wrote the play), with a few of the same characters. Instead of aging a century, Betty and her son Edward have aged just 25 years. Part of the delight of the play is to see the switching of identities of the cast members. Brooke Bloom is the gay schoolboy in Act I; she is the middle-aged mother Betty in Act II. Chris Perfetti is the demure Betty in Act I; he is the grown-up gay Edward in Act II. Lucy Owen, Betty’s mother in Act I, portrays Betty’s daughter Victoria in Act II. (In Act I, Victoria is portrayed by a doll.) Most fun of all,

Clarke Thorell is Clive, the stuffy patrician patriarch of the family in Act I. He’s the wild little girl Cathy in Act II.

The new (or older) cast of characters are let-it-all hang-out London in the 1970’s as opposed to their 19th century repressed and insufferably cordial Act I ancestors, but they are no less full of longing, nor any less confused – apparently more so.

But 1979 is not 2015, and there have been some changes. In an age of explicit sex scenes on stage courtesy of the likes of Thomas Bradshaw, the G-rated depictions in Cloud Nine – characters keep on their clothes and rarely even touch – make even the bisexual incest seem tame. That there is this decorum is not a bad thing; indeed, the contrast between their decorous manner and their indecorous behavior is central to the humor of the play in Act I.

On the other hand, the somewhat emotionally masochistic relationship that in Act II the grown-up Edward has with Gerry (Seth Dugan) his promiscuous on-again/off-again lover, feels like a visit to a 1970’s time capsule.

In a play that purportedly explores colonialism and deliberately casts a white actor as a black servant, it also seems a missed opportunity in a production in 2015 for the director to have hired only white actors. This is not a requirement of the script, and the choice to do so undermines the playwright’s intended overall effect, which is to make us think about the nature of identity. It also shows up the playwright’s failure to deal in any direct way with race – which, at the very least, dates her play.

For better or worse, however, the pointed feminism of Cloud Nine needs no updating. If the play in structure often seems like an early prototype of Love and Information – which was a series of quick-hit scenes rarely longer than a minute – the character of Betty feels like the thread that ties the whole chaotic romp together. This is in part because of the superb portrayals of her, by Chris Peretti in Act I and Brooke Bloom in Act II. But it also is because it’s so touching to see her start to come into her own – leaving Clive, trying to reach out, even if clumsily to the man she doesn’t realize is her son’s lover.

“I was married for so many years it’s quite hard to know how to get acquainted,” she says, and then delivers what feels like the theme of the play: “But if there isn’t a right way to do things you have to invent one. “

Click on any of these photographs by Doug Hamilton, in order to see them enlarged.

Cloud Nine

Atlantic Theater Company

Written by Caryl Churchill

Directed by James MacDonald

Sets by Dane Laffrey, costumes by Gabriel Berry, lights by Scott Zielinski, sound by Darron J. West, hair and wig by Cookie Jordan, dialects by Ben Furey, fights by J. David Brimmer

Cast: Brooke Bloom, Sean Dugan, Lucy Owen, Chris Perfetti, John Sanders, Izzie Steele and Clarke Thorell

Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission

Tickets: $66.50

Cloud Nine is set to run through November 1.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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