By Tulis McCall
Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, now in a spectacular revival at Atlantic Theatre Company (it was last seen here in 1979), turns the world on its head, starting with the title. Cloud Nine is a state of euphoria or Heaven. To be “On Cloud Nine” is an experience devoutly to be wished. In this production, however, Cloud Nine anything but Heaven. It is more of a mild mannered mad house. This is, after all, about Brits who are known not to care what a person does as long as it is spoken of correctly.
Not only is every character in a tizzy, nearly half are played by an actor who is the far flung opposite – a little girl is played by a man, a boy is played by a woman, a black man is played by a white man, etc. Churchill scoops the world up in her capable hands, shakes it like a snow globe and then tosses it up and down for the sheer pleasure of doing so. We are mezmerized.
Act One takes place in Africa when Queen Victoria is on the throne and the British Empire covered a a good chunk of the earth. Clive (Clark Thorell) is managing an estate – where and of what variety we never discover – while his wife Betty (Chris Perfetti), son Edward (Brooke Bloom), mother-in-law Maud (Lucy Owen) daughter Victoria (a doll) and nanny Ellen (Izzie Steel) carve out an impeccably boring existence under the eye of their manservant Joshua (Sean Dugan). There are things going on out there in the bush. The natives, as we say, are getting restless. The natives are, of course, nincompoops because who in their right mind would rebel against the just and loyal rule of the Queen? Seriously. The natives, however, out number the white folk so the rebellion has teeth, even though it is being kept at arm’s length.
Into this bored and tense atmosphere rides Harry Bagley (John Sanders), and old friend who is taking a break from being an explorer. In addition is the frantic arrival of their neighbor Mrs. Saunders (Izzie Steele again) who has read the tea leaves and deserted her own estate rather than wait for it to be taken from her.
These two bring with them the spark that ignites the buried fuse of sex that has snaked its way through the compound. Clive is lovers with Mrs. Saunders who only tolerates him because she is a widow and he is just a tad better than nothing at all. Harry on the other hand cuts a wide swath. While his heart belongs to Betty, his nether regions are out on loan to anyone who will have him. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, Joshua and Edward. Ellen, not wanting to be out done by her betters, has also fallen in love. With her mistress.
All of the above are duly noted and undermined whenever possible by Joshua. While denying his race to the point that his parents are considered merely relatives, is not above snipping the threads of this colonial tapestry.
Act Two brings us to 1979 with the author’s note that for the characters is is 25 years later.
Okie dokie then. Snow glob toss speeds up.
The adult Victoria (Lucy Owen) is now a mother herself and is in the middle of a trifecta of odd situations. Feminism is blossoming (the book Women, Resistance and Revolution by Sheila Rowbotham makes more than one appearance). This means that women are figuring out how to so three times as much work while men have their hands full focusing on doing as little as possible while acting supportive. Her husband Martin (John Sanders) is a hilarious myopic and ineffectual cheerleader. Victoria’s friend Lin (Izzie Steele) who is also the mother of Cathy (Clark Thorell) is in love with her and wants her to move in. Two women in love and being parents??? hmnnnn…. Victoria’s mother Betty (Brooke Bloom) is in middle age and setting out like a pioneer to create a new life as a divorcee. Victoria’s now grown brother Edward (Chris Perfetti) is out of the closet – or is he bisexual? And his sometimes partner Gerry (Sean Dugan) is an oily bit of business who slithers about town trying to hide any sign of a heartbeat. These characters are marooned, like their forbearers in Africa, on an outpost of civilization. The natives that surround them are entrenched in tribal ritual, and this time it is these pioneers who are fomenting rebellion.
While the Victorian era seems to have been two faced about sexuality, Churchill’s world of 1979 has not progressed all that much. History was clinging to its own skirts, as it does today. The social changes were not happening in great swoops but in tiny granular movements. We watch the sexual “revolution” cracking open its shell. Its feathers are still damp, but that is no matter. It will live and flourish.
Forty years later the LGBT community, and anyone who believes that love cannot be legislated, would do well to make a beeline to this play. Let’s all shell out some serious gratitude not only for the characters who are wondrous (and these actors are brilliant), but for Caryl Churchill, the writer who pulled these characters out of the ether and breathed life into them. For those of us old enough to remember when gay meant “lighthearted” and the only safe places for anyone who was not straight were the major urban areas (there was safety of a sort in numbers) Cloud Nine is a trip back in time. Cloud Nine is not only a play, it was and remains a game changer. It is extrardinary theatre theatre that does not sacrifice good writing for a political position. Churchill is, in short, a magician. The director James Macdonald, along with this superb cast serves her wizardry very well indeed.
A note about the set – the entire house of the theatre at Atlantic Theater Company has been reconfigured into stadium eating in the round. As a concept this works wonderfully. As a reality it tanks. The seats are narrow, padded poorly, and so short in depth that my knees were pressing against the row in front of me. It made for one of the most uncomfortable afternoons I have every experienced at the theatre. My friend and I figured they must have been behind schedule so the set became all about how the theatre looked. No one could have sat in these seats for more than 5 minutes without being alerted to the shortcoming. I practially needed the Jaws of Life in order to climb out of my confinement.
There are seats where you can stretch out your legs – and I suggest you as for those specifically.
The good news is that this production of Cloud Nine is even better than I realized. It took my mind off my sore butt and cramped legs for most of the 2.5 hours. Not so very easy to do.
CLOUD NINE by Caryl CHurchill, Directed by James Mcdonald
WITH Brooke Bloom, Sean Dugan, Lucy Owen, Chris Perfetti, John Sanders, Izzie Steele and Clarke Thorell
Through November 1 at Atlantic Theatre Company, Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street