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Cloud Nine

More than any other writer she has transformed the theater into what it needs to be: a gymnasium that exercises the imagination, shakes up the moral sense, stretches the spirit
— Former London Times critic Benedict Nightingale about Caryl Churchill
  Cloud Nine
Izzie Steele,Chris Perfetti,Clarke Thorell, Brooke Bloom, Lucy Owen (Photo: Doug Hamilton)
Many fledgling playwrights'early work tends to be too long. Case in point: British playwright Caryl Churchill's early ground breaker Cloud Nine. It runs two hours and forty minutes, if you include the intermission that provides a breather and scenery change from the first act set in Africa under Queen Victoria's rule and the second act that jumps from 1879 to 1979 and takes us to London at the brink of the women's movement and generally freer sexual and social mores.

Churchill eventually compressed her plots into plays often running well below the increasingly popular 90 minutes. (Last year's Love and Information was a kaleidoscope of mini dramas sometimes lasting just a few minutes). However, her focus continued to be on gender, economics and power, all of which Cloud Nine combines with unique and hilarious theatricality. Though it may have lost some of the timeliness it had in 1980, with the right direction and cast, it holds up remarkably well — as is evident in the Atlantic Theater's intriguing revival, the first New York production since its 2-year run more than 30 years ago at Theater de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel).

The Atlantic Theater cast is more than up to the gender bending casting designated by the playwright to highlight her theme: the parallel between the male dominated society and the British Empire's oppressive rule of far flung native populations and that society's evolving but still restrictive society. Thus in the first act's colonial African setting we see a white man cast as a black native, a man playing a Victorian wife, and a young boy played by a woman. This against type casting not only continues in the second act's 1979 London, but also has the actors playing different characters.

As if the the casting tricks weren't amusing and provocative enough, Churchill quite successfully employed a variety of other theatrical tricks. Though she fast forwarded a hundred years from the African segment but has her characters age just twenty-five years (wouldn't it be nice if we could all slow down our aging process by 75%!). Furthermore, the first and best act has all the elements of a hilarious sex farce. That hilarity is intensified by the fact that despite sexual peccadillos that include adultery, homosexuality and pedophelia, the actors never abandon their well-mannered very British facade.

James Macdonald, a frequent Churchill interpreter, has steered the seven-member cast to keep the challenging gender and role switching characters from being 'strictly 2-dimensional types, with much help from Gabriel Berry's terrific costumes. Chris Perfetti, is perfection as the true-blue Victorian wife Betty who's not too true-blue to have an affair with another man as well as her child's governess. As the second act's Edward, Perfetti has an affair with Sean Dugan's Gerry, who has metamorphosed from the first act's subservient black Joshua into a predatory gay man.

The most drastic re-casting is handled with aplomb by Clarke Thorell as Clive, the family patriarch and Colonial boss in 1879 and the rambunctious child Cathy in 1979. Lucy Owen is deliciously acerbic as Victorian Betty's mom Maud and later as a single mother and lesbian named Victoria (this is a human version of the family infant cast a dool in Act I). John Saunders segues impressively between the family friend, Harry Begley and Martin, a representative of the less in charge type of husband to the emerging women of the 1980s. Brooke Bloom, the first act's young Edward, lives up to her name as the London Betty. Izzie Steele does triple duty, first as governess Ellen and Mrs. Saunders and, later as a new character named Lin.

The play's assets do, however, come with built in problems. Expertly done and fun as all this gender and role switching is, once you catch on to the satirical expose of Victorian hypocrisy, the humor wears a bit thin. What's more, the gender and race blind casting tends to make the revelations about each character's true nature somewhat predictable. Consequently, one can't help wishing Mr. Macdonald had speeded things up. It's fun to see the updated versions of the 1889 family and get a handle on the four new characters for the London portion of the play. But with the humorous aspects of the transgender casting, mostly provided by Thorell's pompous colonial as a bratty little girl this more naturalistic second act loses some of its satirical edge.

Perhaps my wishing for Macdonald to move things along faster, comes from his indulging his penchant for reconfiguring a theater, which he also did for Churchill's A Number and another cutting edge British playwright Cock by a young cutting edge British playwright Mike Bartlett. The in the round staging effectively brings the audience closer to the action and the director has made sure that no section gets mostly back of the head views of the actors. The aisles are fine substitutes for a farce's usual four doors, a few carried on and off chairs are adequate props and a green carpet installed at intermission is all that's needed to transform the African setting to a London park. You could add that the in the round setup heightens the sense that no matter how life styles and attitudes change, the past may look different but keeps coming around again and again.

The problem is that the even though cushioned, the benches of Dane Laffry's set are too narrow to be comfortable, even for someone short and slim. Worse yet, the access to the seats is somewhat unsafe, with the back of the benches too low to grab hold of for support in lieu of a railing and the extra steps are not stumble proof (at the performance I attended one of the stage hands had to use a drill to tighten a step near me).

And so to sum up the Atlantic Theater's Cloud Nine, it's still a provocative entertainment. But don't expect to be on cloud nine in terms of your physical comfort zone.

P.S. I did note some extra pillows that smart theater goers can grab to make things a bit less uncomfortable.

Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill
Directed by James MacDonald.
Cast: Brooke Bloome(Edward/Betty), Sean Dugan (Joshua/Gerry), Lucy Owen (Maud/Victoria), Chris Perfetti (Betty/Edward), John Sanders (Harry Bagley/Martin), Izzie Steele (Ellen/Mrs. Saunders/Lin), Clarke Thorell (Clive/Cathy/ Bill)
Sets: Dan Laffrey
Costumes: Gabriel Berry
Lighting: Scott Zielinski
Sound: Darren West
Hair and wigs: Cookie Jordan
Dialects: Ben Furey
Fights: J. David Brimmer
Stage Manager: David H. Lurie
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one inermission
Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20 Street
From 9/16/15; opening 10/05/15; closing 11/31/15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 3rd press matinee
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