Cloud Nine

Sexual Politics

Review of Cloud 9, Hartford Stage

Caryl Churchill’s wildly irreverent and comic play Cloud 9 addresses sexual politics, and how mores change with the times. It also shows how the past—here, the British past, specifically—is always being re-imagined. Act One’s lively burlesque of Victorian erotic relations in the 1870s is paralleled with a rather more naturalistic rendering set in 1979 in Act Two. The play dates from 1979, so Act Two, originally, was very contemporary indeed. The main difficulty now is that we’ve almost gotten to the point at which “the 1970s” may inspire a burlesque spirit similar to what Churchill makes of the 1870s. If played more for laughs—such as its invocation of a New Agey “goddess”—Act Two might have more bite. In any case, its effort to imagine a sort of social utopia of sexual relations and child-rearing may strike some as quaint, others as progressive—even now. Or especially now?

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Which is a way of saying that the past’s social progress can still present a challenge in times of virulent conservatism. In any case, Cloud 9 remains a challenging and amorphous play that provides equal parts entertainment and food for thought. Launched initially as Margaret Thatcher came to power, Cloud 9 may make us oddly nostalgic for the hopes of earlier eras.

Cathy (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Cathy (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Casting is key to the success of the production at Hartford Stage, directed by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson, in her directorial debut. Because the cast of seven actors must play the 15 characters of both acts—in some cases cross-gender and contrary to age—and because who doubles as whom is established by Churchill, the overall effect depends upon actors who can manage the considerable disparity in roles. Here, Mark H. Dold enacts the most striking transformation, setting the tone for both acts. In Act One, he plays the repressive patriarch Clive, looking and sounding very Victorian indeed, then plays a preening little girl, Cathy, in Act Two; in both cases, Dold’s character lords it over the others. That shift is the most telling in this play of shifting orientations, and Dold carries it off splendidly.

Front: Edward (Mia Dillon), Betty (Tom Pecinka), Joshua (William John Austin); Rear: Ellen (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold), Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Front: Edward (Mia Dillon), Betty (Tom Pecinka), Joshua (William John Austin); Rear: Ellen (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold), Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act One takes us to a colonial outpost in South Africa where Clive resides with his family: demure wife Betty (Tom Pecinka), adolescent son Edward (Mia Dillon), who has a penchant for playing with dolls, baby Vickie (who is a doll), and mother-in-law Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas); there’s also a manservant Joshua (William John Austin), who has renounced his people through his attachment to Clive; a maid, Ellen (Sarah Lemp), who is very affectionate toward Betty; Mrs. Saunders (Lemp again), a very independent widow; and a very manly explorer, Harry Bagley (Chandler Williams). The amusement is in seeing how a surface “normality” is constantly undermined by the kinds of subversive urges that, time was, would’ve been the subject of considerable repression. Comic moments, such as Ellen’s attempt to seduce Betty, and Harry misreading signals from Clive, are set against bits that are almost poignant, such as Joshua’s song at Christmas, a plaintive love note to his oppressors. Mia Dillon, a veteran actress, is quite remarkable as little Edward, and Tom Pecinka languishes quite ladylike as doleful Betty.

In Act Two, Cathy’s winsome childishness is the best feature, as the play’s treatment of the problem of parenting, as an ongoing chore without nursemaids to take up the slack, hits a contemporary note. Cathy’s mother is Lin (Sarah Lemp), a lesbian with eyes for Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), the doll grown up, we’re to imagine, who has a son we never see and whom she is attempting to raise with help from her novelist husband, Martin (Chandler Williams). Martin is a nice send-up of the "enlightened" male of the period, no less overbearing than Clive, but in a more sensitive way, trying to be supportive and to share parenting duties and the like. His hair and clothes recall aspects of the 1970s most of us would rather forget. Gunyou Halaas, in contrast, wears her retro threads quite well and portrays Victoria as a woman on the verge of change.

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Such is also the case with Betty (Mia Dillon, now playing her own age), who has a deliberate look of Thatcher about her, but is much more liberal. She takes us into her confidence about achieving orgasm manually, fully in the spirit of Our Bodies, Our Selves. Meanwhile, Edward (Tom Pecinka) is a gardener in the local park—where all bring their children to tire themselves out—who is trying to be a “wife” to Gerry (William John Austin), a rather feckless young man who prefers to enjoy a liberated gay lifestyle.

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Edward (Tom Pecinka) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Edward (Tom Pecinka) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The aspect of Act Two that never completely jells is the effort to find some common ground for all these inter-relations. Certain moments, such as the song the entire cast sings, seem almost a parody of togetherness, though Williamson is unwilling to satirize progressiveness the way Act One easily satirizes patriarchy. And yet there’s no escaping the fact that seeing same-sex couples as boring—as couples—as hetero couples often are, while it may help support what must once have been a striking notion—that couples are much the same, regardless of what sort of pairing constitutes them—doesn’t make for intriguing theater. It doesn’t help that in Act Two only Dold is still playing against type. The other actors are in roles they might be cast for in conventional casting. Perhaps it’s time to shake-up casting a bit further.

The reappearance of certain figures from Act One in the play’s conclusion makes for a surprisingly fond return. Without being sentimental in effect, the final note arrives as a kind of détente with previous generations: while no doubt at a loss about how the world would change, they may at least be allowed the dignity of their historical situation. It helps, of course, that Dold’s Clive and Pecinka’s Betty are so charismatic they seem almost archetypal. Or is that just a way of saying that some things never change?

Mrs. Sanders (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Mrs. Sanders (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)



Cloud 9
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design & Original Composition: Andre Pluess; Wig & Hair Design: Cookie Jordan; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Production Stage Manager: Denise Cardarelli; Assistant Stage Manager: Ellen Goldberg; Casting: Jack Bowden, CSA, Binder Casting

Cast: William John Austin; Mark H. Dold; Mia Dillon; Emily Gunyou Halaas; Sarah Lemp; Tom Pecinka; Chandler Williams

Hartford Stage
February 23-March 19, 2017

A Cab of Many Colors

Every year the Yale Cabaret enstates new artistic directors—Yale School of Drama students whose vision of and commitment to theater will guide the choices of shows for the coming season. For Cab 46, almost ready to kick-off this month, the people running the show are three dramaturgs—Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowski, Kelly Kerwin—as co-Artistic Directors, and Shane Hudson, as Managing Director. All have previous background with offerings at the Cab—particularly, for the ADs, The Twins Would Like to Say, the penultimate production of Cab 45. Dibo and Dubowski co-directed the play and Kerwin was the production’s dramaturg. Those who saw the play will remember its use of the entire space of the Cab (there was no “back stage”) and its encouragement that the audience move about during the show, which was staged, at times, in different locations simultaneously. Hudson has already become a familiar face at the front desk of the Cab, particularly during the Yale Summer Cab of 2012.

The tag words for this year’s Cab are “invention – urgency – artistry,” and the three ADs stress “risk” as an element of what they’re looking for in choosing the shows that will be staged this year. Being “allowed to fail” means having the luxury to try out approaches, plays, collaborations that might be something less than a “sure thing.” If everyone only does what they’ve already done and know they’re good at, all sense of exploration, innovation, and challenge goes out the window. As regulars of the Cab know, there’s always a mix of amazingly spot-on shows and shows that reach for something they might not grasp, this time ‘round. There’s also a beguiling sense of not knowing what you’ll get until you arrive and the show starts. The Cab’s mystique is largely predicated on the unexpected and the untried before.

The questions that Dibo, Dubowski and Kerwin—sounding a bit like a law firm or agency when you say it like that—ask of their colleagues, in the application process, apply to time and place. “Why here?” is a question about the use of the specific space and implies a sense of community as well. Why the Cab, both as a uniquely intimate and amorphous space, but also, why the Cab, in the sense of its audience and its larger context within the School of Drama. D,D,K are committed to tapping the unique ability of the Cab to serve their colleagues in YSD as the premiere locus for artistic investigation.

The complimentary question, of course, and one that every theatrical venue should ask when setting up its season is “why now?” The “here and now” of any play is what convinces audiences that they should be present to see this particular show and not some other.The Cab shows, in their short lives (only three nights for each play), arrive with a sense of urgency, a sense that the story to be told is worth all the sweat and toil for such an ephemeral run.

With shows that are completely generated by graduate students—usually in a mix of already existing plays and plays originating before our very eyes—the Cab can’t get us in the door with stars and celebrities. The venue’s allure has to do with the possibility of discovery: what future greats may even now be honing their talents for audiences at a ridiculously low price? (A non-student flex pass of 9 shows makes each show cost $10, which is the standard price for students.) A host of top notch theater people have worked at the Cab in its 46 illustrious years: Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Paul Giamatti, John Turturro, Christopher Durang, Anna Shapiro, to name but a few. We’ve no doubt that their fellows can be found working with devotion on the “passion projects” at the Cab (no show at the Cab counts toward graduation for any of its participants; these shows are all ends in themselves—unless they go on to future development, as some do).

This year, the ADs have instituted a deviation. Usually the ADs of the Cab reserve a few slots for their own projects. Our three ADs have chosen to waive that perk but have replaced it with a different kind of participation: each approved play will have one of the three ADs assigned to it as Creative Producer. That role will be a vantage from which to offer notes before a show goes up, and, more importantly, to facilitate the show in any way necessary. The role of CP lets D, D, or K have a creative role in how a project shapes up—not that ADs are traditionally hands-off entirely about the shows they accept. The CP role will mean that the ADs are a bit more invested in each show than might sometimes be the case.

As students of dramaturgy—the text-based, historical consciousness of the theatrical community, we might say—Dibo, Dubowski, and Kerwin have paid their dues: both Dibo and Kerwin have worked in Chicago with the famous Steppenwolf Theatre, as well as other innovative companies, and Dubowski has worked with Headlong Dance Theatre in Philadelphia, and at the Yale Rep as dramaturg on last year’s comic satire American Night: The Ballad of Juan José. Dibo and Dubowski also collaborated on Cab 44’s The Yiddish King Lear, and the trio have worked on thesis shows and Carlotta Festival shows at YSD. In other words, D,D,K have run the gamut of the kinds of shows YSD produces as well as having experience with the kind of theater that takes place off-the-beaten-track.

And now the first three shows . . .

Cab 1: September 19-21: We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun by Helen Jaksch, Kelly Kerwin, and Emily Zemba; directed by Kelly Kerwin. Using live music—including a tango—to tell the tale, based on a real story, of a fictional legendary drag queen, Edie La Minx explores “the grit behind the glam.” Edie, it seems, not only has a gun, she also has an unexplained mummified body in a garment bag in her apartment, complete with a gunshot wound to the head. Who is it, and what’s it mean for Edie? Seth Bodie assays the role of Edie (those who braved the biggest blizzard in recent memory last winter to see the First Annual Yale Cab Drag Show may remember Seth’s performance, which may or may not be relevant to the role of Edie). The show purports to have the lively and unpredictable elements so crucial to season kick-offs, and that’s reason enough to see how it plays.

Cab 2: September 26-28: The Dutchman by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka; directed by Katherine McGerr. Jones’ play was incendiary in its time, making free use of “the n word” and exploring the vexed issue of inter-racial attraction and antagonism on a New York subway in 1964—the year after Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. In these “post-racial” days of the Baraka administration, an event like the murder of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman (to say nothing of more distant events such as the O.J. trial in the ‘90s) shows us that, in the U.S., race is never “in the past.” McGerr has done notable work at the Cab in staging already existing plays that featured the grisly (Howard Benton's Christie in Love), the timely (Arthur Kopit's Chamber Music), and the unpredictable (Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit/Red Rabbit).

Cab 3: October 3-5: The Most Beautiful Thing in the World; conceived and directed by Gabe Levey. If you’ve been around YSD in the last few years, you probably know Gabe Levey—his Andy Kaufmannesque one-man show, Brainsongs, in Cab 44, or his comic role as the Shoemaker/Puppet-master in the Summer Cab’s enactment of Lorca’s The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife, or perhaps his memorable turn as a young girl in a pinafore in Margot Bordelon’s thesis production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine last spring. This time he’ll be directing Third-Year playwright Kate Tarker in play that promises one of “the world’s most renowned motivational speakers” and a pitch to put the "you" in “universe.” Levey and Tarker share a penchant for the techniques Christopher Bayes teaches in his clown classes at Yale (Bayes is the comic vision behind such recent Rep hits as The Servant of Two Masters and A Doctor in Spite of Himself), so this show will be nothing if not funny.

Another innovation of Cab 46 will be the use of actual images from the productions in the support materials, such as the playbills at the shows, and a logo that provides grounds for seeing this as “a Cab of many colors.”

The remaining seven shows of the first semester will be previewed here some time in October, and, until then, see you at the Cab!

(photographs by Christopher Ash; courtesy of the Yale Cabaret)