By Caryl Churchill; Directed by James McDonald
Produced by Atlantic Theater Company
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Playing through 11.1.15
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 10.6.15
The cast of Cloud Nine. Photo by Doug Hamilton.
BOTTOM LINE: Caryl Churchill’s astounding play is bravely and carefully revived by the Atlantic Theater Company.
Government shutdowns over settled abortion-related issues, county clerks refusing to issue people marriage licenses because of a personal, religious difference, and rich, white men demeaning women, the poor, and people of color from a bully pulpit are today’s headlines. And these power plays are the reason why the Atlantic Theater Company’s revival of Cloud Nine by the oh-so-important Caryl Churchill is so necessary. This play lives in the dangerous world where others are allowed to tell you who you are—where a white man owns the body of a woman and a slave so much he is able to label them whatever he pleases. Churchill allows them to fight back but not without watching them suffer a bunch first.
What’s important to know about Cloud Nine is that the impossible is actually quite theatrically true here. There are two acts, one in Victorian Britain’s colonized Africa and the other in the rather specific time of 1979, at the end of the tumultuous no-rules generation and on the cusp of the stricter 1980s with the HIV/AIDS crisis and Margaret Thatcher. Oh, the crazy part? Both acts contain many of the same characters though in their world, despite the some one hundred years of history, only twenty-five years have passed. Just go with it. I promise you it’ll work out.
Act 1 features Clive (an authoritative yet surprisingly gentle Clarke Thorell), a British colonial figure with obedient wife Betty (an almost catatonic Chris Perfetti) and slave Joshua (the regal, appropriately sane Sean Dugan). Naturally Clive is here to exert his power over a country that isn’t his and yes colonizes just about every other thing around him. His son, Edward (Brooke Bloom), likes to play with dolls and is continually reminded that this is wrong for boys. His daughter Victoria is a wooden doll, tossed carelessly. House guest Mrs. Saunders (the fabulously versatile Izzie Steele) is perfect adultery fodder for Clive though Betty’s scandalous love for Harry Bagley (John Sanders) is wildly inappropriate.
Act 2 forces us to confront the problems of masculine dominance. Clive now plays the bratty five-year-old Cathy in a perfect bit of poetic playwriting justice. Clive’s daughter Victoria (now played by an actual human, Lucy Owens) is married to Martin (John Sanders) but is wrestling with her sexuality and may in fact love Lin (Izzie Steele). Edward here is now taken on with similar care by Chris Perfetti, a shy, closted gay man with mentally abusive boyfriend and sex fiend Gerry (Sean Dugan). And Betty is now played by the fabulous Brooke Bloom who constructs a impressively modern woman who, despite all the changes in her world, is doing her best to understand, having lived her formative years under the harsh control of her corset and husband. You’ll be confused in this act. I promise it’s all on purpose. Go with the flow and you’ll end up in a satisfying place.
Dane Laffrey’s set design and Scott Zielinski’s lighting design have a rather assaulting play in store for us. The Linda Gross Theater has never been seen like this before as it has been stripped of its usual proscenium stage, seating removed in favor of a circular wooden structure that rises steeply to the still present barn rafters. We’re squeezed into tight benches and peering down at the action as if it’s some kind of cockfight or operating theater. Laffrey has left the timbers blond, untreated, and product stamps exposed as if to tell us there will be a similar raw, rough texture to the play. It draws attention to the odd beige hue of the bricks at the Linda Gross I hadn’t noticed before, giving an unusual lightness to this troubling play.
Zielinski places us directly in the path of an arsenal of harsh white lights, distinctly too many, most all point directly downward, like an uncontrollable high noon sun. The terrifying grid pattern they make up is even more noticeable by our proximity to the instruments on our brilliantly constructed wooden “O” seating. Zielinski shows restraint and bravery of when to use his arsenal and when to light entire scenes with one, simple light. Gabriel Barry runs a marathon on a similarly colorless costume design with judicious help from Cookie Jordan’s hair and wig designs that so expertly transform these characters with ease.
There’s quite a bit of design muscles stretched here. And for me they work quite well in the first act. It’s the second, gentler act where this all feels a bit overwhelming. It’s worth noting that the more languid second act covers an entire year of seasons (important for not only the understanding of the timeline of the play but also for poetic purposes) yet it’s played out on a carpet of decidedly summer-y grass. Barry does her best to transform the costumes seasonally though I still struggle with where exactly we’re at in the play.
James McDonald has engineered quite the imagining of this important play. He’s concocted beautifully nuanced, delicate characters. And it’s certainly important that Churchill’s characters don’t feel broad but rather honest. Trouble is, I missed some danger. There’s a lot of laughter in this play, certainly, though I longed to find that gut turning, uncomfortable laughter that often accompanies this kind of madness. There’s a forceful, tightness in the first act that has to push us into the place-finding troubles of the second. This metaphorical corset isn’t tied very tightly.
It’s a commendable choice for the Atlantic Theater Company nonetheless. Cloud Nine should be on everyone’s top ten list of important twentieth-century plays if it isn’t already. For this time, and sadly more years to come, Churchill’s words will be true. “There’s no way out.”
(Cloud Nine plays at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, through November 1, 2015. Performances are Tuesday at 7, Wednesday at 2 and 8, Thursday and Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, and Sunday at 2. There is a Sunday evening performance on October 11th. Tickets are $65 and can be purchased online at atlantictheater.org or by calling 866.811.4111.)