Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine is something of a schizophrenic play. As staged by Margot Bordelon, a third-year director in the YSD program, the show is a wildly entertaining first half yoked to a second half that isn’t nearly so nimble. The first half is set in 1880, on a colonial outpost in Africa, and laughs abound. The second half is set in England c. 1980, and … not so much. Maybe it’s just me, and my antipathy for that particular past—the era contemporaneous with the writing of the play—is my problem. And yet, it’s obviously much easier to imbue the 1880s with charm and fun and a frothy lubricity that makes everyone ready to have sex with someone, than it is to derive much in the way of lasting uplift, drama or entertainment from the people who inhabit the late Seventies/early Eighties. Too close to home but also dated? Maybe that’s it. The cast—and they are extremely well-cast—gives it a game try and there are some notable bits in the show’s second half to make it worthwhile.
Before the show even starts we’re treated to the cast posed as figures in displays in a sort of living museum of natural history. And the exhibits’ backgrounds remain as the set for the African outpost where rigidly upstanding Brit Clive (Gabe Levey, a comic revelation) lives with his family: his blushingly compliant wife Betty (Timothy Hassler, as winsome as one could want a man in a dress to be), Edward, his goldilocked adolescent son (played with inspired awkwardness by a woman), Maud, his no-nonsense mother-in-law (Hannah Sorenson, a study in gray), his daughter Victoria (a stuffed doll) and the child’s nanny, Ellen (Brenda Meaney, self-effacing), as well as his Man Friday Joshua (Chris Bannow—more later), who has renounced his tribe to be a trusted servant. Enter into this world of domestic bliss and disrupted white tranquility—the natives, as they say, are restless—a rugged explorer, Harry (Mickey Theis, increasingly profound), and a woman with a tendency to be rather assertive, Mrs. Saunders (Meaney again, anything but self-effacing).
As with any broad farce, one isn’t surprised to find that Betty and Harry have a concealed passion for each other of long-standing. Nor is it surprising to find that Clive has the hots for Mrs. Saunders as a supplement to his overly demure wife (there’s a fairly outrageous scene of coupling between the two, with Levey and Meaney getting all the humor they can out of it). But when Edward begins to pant for Harry, and the latter slips away with Joshua for a fuck in the stable, and when Ellen tries to make a move on Betty, and when, after some mixed signals are let slip, Harry comes on to Clive, much to the latter’s outrage, well, let’s just say everyone but Maud is ready to do it with someone (the old lady mainly gets her kicks having one doll bitch-slap another). You see how it is: Victorian propriety masks a libidinal free-for-all. In Churchill’s 1880s, no one was standing around waiting for Freud to invent sexual repression. Everyone is sexually expressive, it’s just that the expression had to be a bit more clandestine than would later be the case.
All of this is very amusing with a cast so equal to the task, and the roles of Clive, Betty, Harry, and Edward, especially, manage to be both caricatures as well as bravura bits of characterization by the respective actors in the roles. Scenes between Harry and Edward are particularly spirited, as are the scenes when Clive tries to upbraid his wife and son. But to Bannow, as Joshua, falls one of the more interesting roles. Indeed, it should be mentioned that Bannow has done an estimable job of playing perfectly the kinds of ancillary roles that matter much to the overall effect. He did it in both parts of Jack Tamburri’s thesis show, Iphigenia Among the Stars, and he does it again in both parts of Cloud Nine. Joshua is anything but a caricature; he’s a complex witness to a world that tries desperately to hide its truths from itself, and his “Christmas song” is a plaintive grasp at love from someone denuded of his own identity in favor of an invention. It’s one of the finest moments in the play.
In the second half, after a curtain painted as a Union Jack has fallen to the floor, we enter the post-punk era of Margaret Thatcher. It’s a brave new world in which women like Victoria (that doll grown up, we’re meant to assume, despite the leap in time) can leave an earnest, well-meaning and hilariously “progressive” husband (Theis, in a sustained comic role) in favor of, first, Lin, a recently divorced single- mother lesbian (Sorenson, lower class than Vickie), and, later, a sexual ménage à trois with Lin and her own bisexual brother—little Edward (Hessler), now grown into a sensitive cross between his earlier, feminized self and Harry, the manly explorer he adored back there in Part One. The cavorting about on a picnic blanket by Vickie, Lin and Edward is not only intense, it’s also preceded by an invocation of “the goddess.” While that sort of thing should invite acerbic parody in our time—aren’t the New Agey trappings of the New Woman of the Seventies as risible as the era’s Sensitive Man?—the trio manages to turn the moment into a liberated expression of collective ecstasy. Almost.
Act Two, then, isn’t all farce but aimed at something like a naturalized representation of people trying to find their way in the minefield of human relationships. The emotional center is Vickie and she gets a sensitive portrayal, with spirited support from Meaney’s newly divorced Betty, looking like a Thatcher wanna-be and yet displaying the good sense to embrace the moment’s potential, and from Bannow’s feckless but direct Gerry—as Edward’s sometime lover he exudes the kind of low-key sexual know-how that seems never to go out of date.
Where the play loses some of the moorings that helped give power to Part One is in the part of Cathy—Lin’s little girl. With pigtails and Clive’s handle-bar moustache, in a short velvet frock above manly legs, Levey is let run rampant as a kind of androgynous, butch pixie of the Id. With prepubescent preening, tantrums, and naughty asides, Levey is so riotously girlish he becomes a one-man drag show, but there’s no room for something Part One had and Part Two needs: the sensitivity with which the child—Edward, in Part One—was allowed to put heart into the play via understated comedy.
In Churchill’s script, the actor playing Clive—the ultra-male bastion of all things British—must become a little girl in Part Two, and Bordelon’s production lets us see how such a transformation is no transformation, really, since, Clive or Cathy, it’s Levey’s role to dominate the scene, as Cathy dominates her well-meaning but somewhat clueless elders. It’s prescient, certainly, as patriarchy makes way for . . . pueri-archy?
Cloud Nine By Caryl Churchill Directed by Margot Bordelon
Scenic Designer: Kate Noll; Costume Designer: Elivia Bovenzi; Lighting Designer: Masha Tsimring; Sound Designer: Sam Ferguson; Composer: Palmer Hefferan; Production Dramaturgs: Emily Reilly, Alexandra Ripp; Stage Manager: Sonja Thorson
Yale School of Drama January 22-26, 2013