The Ridgelea Reports on Theatre

"Cloud 9" at The Hartford Stage

It takes a few minutes to figure out that we are in a peculiar kind of pretend world. Perhaps the stage within a stage in Nick Vaughn’s intriguing set should have given it away immediately. But Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9,” now playing at Hartford Stage, seems at the very least to be making a point that in the classic Victorian era, much of life was lived by a script that only appeared to be in good order. That was the goal of behavior. Look as if, whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it properly. If what you’re actually feeling and doing doesn’t seem ‘proper,’ just ignore that and strike a pose that pretends it never happened.

As it happens, there’s a lot that posing covers up. The family in “Cloud 9,” all flag waving and loyal to both Queen Victoria and the Empire (which they quite represent, while living in a remote place in Africa) consists of Clive, the father (Mark H. Dodd), Betty, the mother (a striking Tom Pecinka), Edward, the young son (Mia Dillon), and Maud, the grandmother (Emily Gunyou Halaas), and the baby, young Elisabeth (represented by a puppet). Two servants include Joshua, who is black (William John Austin, who is white) and Ellen (Sarah Lemp). When neighbor Harry Bagley, Clive’s good friend (Chandler Williams) comes to visit, he is sexually interested in Betty, and Joshua, and Edward, and they are all interested back. Especially Betty, who would be willing to leave Clive and run away with Harry. In a candid moment Harry explains that “No Betty, I need you to be Clive’s wife, my best friend’s wife,” in order to keep their affair vibrant. To Edward, still a youth, he explains that their fun must be kept secret. And when he mistakenly takes a comment by Clive to mean that they might do some male bonding with a bit of a physical thrust to it, he quickly withdraws his bid. Clive, in the meantime, is delighted to attach his bonding to another neighbor, Mrs. Saunders (also played by Sarah Lemp), with whom he has a clever liason while completely hidden beneath her proper skirt.

There’s a clever mix in casting. Let’s reiterate: The black servant Joshua is played by a white man. The wife and mother is played by a man in very respectable drag. The young boy in the family is played by a mature woman, and he doesn’t want to be a proper boy. His affection for his sister’s doll provokes strong discipline and shaming since he must ‘grow up to be a man,’ and in one spine-chilling scene when he learns the moves and then screams at “black” Joshua, “Boy, you will do whatever my mother commands you,” he is praised for having done a manly thing, so very well.

The mixed-up demands of gender and culture and propriety that have been skewed in Act I only reverberate as Act II comes along a hundred years later, back in London. Don’t be too put off by trying to figure why the hundred years are less than half that in the characters that represent the family in continuum. The tiny puppet Elisabeth has matured and is the grandmother Betty (Mia Dillon) of a family completely extruded by the sexual revolution. (It is 1979). Modern relationships have involved her children in the same kinds of frustration that bewildered her mother in Africa. Two men have a great discussion about gay sharing: “I want to cook for you; I want to be your wife...”  “That isn’t what I want for me, or from you...”  Something like that, though the script finally suggests they are getting close and closer. Churchill has drawn a parallel between the masked behaviors of the past to the open ones in the middle of the twentieth century that certainly rings true sociologically. Every stretch of the imagination turns up with a threesome that includes brother and sister, and a married couple going separate ways sexually but keeping the system connected. Then there’s the old matron, Betty, describing how she found masturbation to be a useful experience late in life, when she had outlived her husband.

Is “Cloud 9” a great play revived or just a smashing production? I’d say the latter. Or maybe it’s a big deal because of the production. Director Elizabeth Williamson, the Associate Artistic Director of Hartford Stage, gives full tilt to stylized choreography in Act I, including the tossing of the puppet Elisabeth into the hands of servants (impressive and shocking all at once). The whole Empire thing sort of crashes down due to black rebellion at the end of Act I, and London’s action takes place on a whole different plane. Lots of “Cloud 9” as we get it here is still cloaked in symbolism and fantasy, leaving lots of its audience fairly well confused. It’s a wonderful vehicle for this ensemble of actors having great fun, and doing it skillfully. But an audience needs to be in sync, too, if a production is to count as having impact. Somewhere along the way of getting there, in a long two-and-a-half-hour journey, the impact doesn’t quite survive.

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