Cloud 9 is a peculiar, challenging play. Its title brings to mind feelings of euphoria and images of paradise. On the other hand, Throughline Theatre Company’s production of Caryl Churchill’s controversial and unorthodox examination of the social and sexual aftershocks of British colonialism—under the unfocused direction of Edwin Lee Gibson—conjures feelings of befuddlement and images of purgatory.
To be fair, Churchill’s script is a real high wire act. The play is staged in two acts. The first is set in 1880 while the second is contemporaneously set in 1979, when it premiered at Dartington College of Arts in southwest England. But, while a century has passed for the world the characters exist in between acts, only 25 years have passed in the lives of the characters themselves. To add Brechtian insult to Brechtian injury, nearly every role in both acts is played by an actor of the opposite gender or opposite race than what the character would typically be. On top of that, the actors all play completely different characters in the second act than they do in the first.
This choice wasn’t a preemptive strike by Churchill to take advantage of the The Man in the High Castle–Confederate–Black America-led alternative history craze gripping pop culture by the throat at the moment. It’s an attempt to force the audience to give familiar characters (a unappreciated wife) in familiar circumstances (a mother coming to terms with the choices made by her adult children) a second look and, more importantly, a second thought.
Unfortunately, Gibson’s work here steers clear of any of this potential for resonance thanks to the countless tonal shifts that take place throughout. In Act I, some of the wise cracking characters appear to be straight out of a 1970’s sitcom like The Jeffersons while others fret about like they’re straight out of a BBC period drama like Downton Abbey. He handles some of the more frank and frankly disturbing moments where the characters act on their sexual desires with a complete lack of sensitivity.
That leaves it up to the ensemble to get to the heart of Churchill’s message and, thankfully, Gibson has assembled a very capable group of actors.
When the play opens in an English-colonized African nation in turmoil, we meet Clive, a colonial administrator played hilariously by Malic Williams—an African-American male actor. In the wake of protests from the local people, Clive does his best to strategize and protect his wife Betty (Liam Ezra Dickinson, a white male actor), their son Edward (Jalina K. McClarin, an African-American female actor), their daughter Victoria (a crude prop), and Betty’s mother Maud (Tracey D. Turner, an African-American female actor). It is soon revealed that both Betty and Clive have wandering eyes and their own unique, complicated relationships with their “boy” Joshua (Victor Aponite, a white male actor).
It also becomes clear early on that there is a strange coincidence involving Ellen (Betty and Clive’s governess) and Mrs. Saunders (Betty and Clive’s widowed acquaintance). The striking and versatile Maeve Harten plays both women to great comedic effect thanks to a few well-timed entrances. She turns from downtrodden to determined at the drop of a curly red wig.
While the first half of the show is definitely its weakest, it is anchored by Shannon Knapp’s atmospheric and ominous sound design. The more surefooted second half is conversely muddled by Paige Borak’s distracting and obvious lighting design.
One hundred/twenty-five years after Act I, Victoria (McClarin) is all grown up and in an unfulfilling marriage of her own. She meets a lesbian single mother named Lin (a soulful and earnest Turner) in a park in London and eventually embarks on a sexual awakening. Along for the ride is Edward (Williams), who is at odds with the gender politics of his relationship with his lover Gerry (a sultry Dickinson). Looking on in prim disapproval is Betty (a once again scene stealing Harten), widowed and grappling with loneliness.
In trying to prepare you to grapple with all the pleasures and pitfalls of Throughline Theatre’s Cloud 9, I am also reminded of the game where people gaze up in the sky and compare their ideas for what the clouds rolling by up there most closely resemble. This production is proof that, no matter how hard a person might try to impose their vision on it, a cloud is ultimately just a distant, amorphous blob.
Cloud 9 plays at the Henry Heymann Theater in the Stephen Foster Memorial through August 19th. For more information, click here.