Monday, March 14, 2016

Cloud 9 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 remains my favorite English language play of the 20th Century, so you can imagine how I reacted to news the Antaeus Company would be mounting a production of same.  The play makes for delightfully weird mirror of both our modern world and the Victorian Era out of which it arose.  Specifically, it deals with sex--not only in terms of sexuality (explored in a somewhat dizzying array) but more fundamentally in terms of gender as well as the troublesome/delightful fact sex even exists.

We begin in Africa, 1880, with an English family--Clive, his wife Betty, their daughter Vicky and son Edward--living on an estate, proudly striving to do their duty and save the natives from their savage natures.  Act Two picks up with exactly this same family precisely ten years later--in London 1980.

Yeah, ten years and simultaneously one century later.  Don't try and understand it, just go with the flow.

The layers in this play seem nearly infinite, to those of us lucky enough to have seen multiple productions of it, with each one revealing new insights into the situation, the characters, the ideas.  Obviously, it hardly qualifies as "realism" but like dream or myth it is all about Truth.  Not the easy truths, the comfortable truths, but the complex ones, the truths that challenge wrong (but extremely common) assumptions down to bedrock, and doesn't offer any kind of a neat solution to problems raised.  Maybe that's one reason it is remains so funny.  If it weren't the resulting disorientation might prove too much.  Then again, the humor is part of the challenge, a vital part of the experience.

In a nutshell, for Act One we get an almost Monty Python-esque pastiche of the Victorian Era, including the fact wife and mother Betty (Bill Brochtrup) is played by a man.  "I am a man's creation," she says, "and what a man wants is what I want to be."  Likewise their son Eddy (Deborah Puette) is played by a woman, while the daughter is portrayed exactly the way we might imagine such a household sees a baby girl--a doll. Well, of course.  Just as the black manservant Joshua (Chad Borden) is white.  "What white man wants is what I long to be."

 Then the homosexuals show up, in the person of the explorer Harry (David DeSantos) and Vicky's governess (Abigail Marks).  Hilarity, some of it very dark, ensues.

Act Two on the other shows what Britain has become in the next century, roughly contemporary to ourselves (one could assume the two acts take place in 1915 and 2015 without much of a stretch).  And while almost everything has in some sense returned to what we think of as normal--men playing men, women playing women--we're still left with the disorienting thought this involves many of the same individuals.

However, the five year old bratty girl is played by a middle aged man.  Just to help remind us of possibilities, and to offer comment (such as how very much she loves to play with guns).

But more than that--and here are very much in real spoiler territory--the stylization of all this makes for a ritual every bit as religious as Holy Communion. Or is that "mystical"?  Grown up Eddy and his sister Vic  each have relationship problems, then end up flabbergasted when their middle aged mother Betty leaves their father.  Vic meanwhile begins a relationship with Lin, the mother of the aforementioned bratty little girl.  A moment of contemplation between the siblings leads to a new arrangements--a bisexual incestuous triangle, sans jealousy but full of love.  And happens.

The three of them get drunk one night, and decide to have a ritual, an attempt to call up the Goddess of the most ancient times, she of many names who has been forgotten but is now again appearing in human memory.  And they offer up that most brave and wonderful of prayers--Give Us What We Need!

What follows is a change in time and space, a series of genuine miracles that nudge all to where (in time) they each might come to be.  Where?  Cloud 9 of course.  For now, as the play ends, only one of them seems to make it, but they all might be heading there.  We end with hope.

Especially the closing moments of the play, oh that most splendid of tear-jerking moments, when the middle aged Betty remembers her mother and her husband, how they defined her.  And the sweet pleasure of discovering she herself is real.  More, she is free.  Then she turns around to see...herself.  From Act One.

Not going to tell you what happens next.  See it for yourself. One amazing quality of this play is just how much every single production leads me to new insights, not simply in terms of my mind but in the gut.  At least if the cast is good enough, and this one proves very good.  Every character comes to life, and even the ones most appalling ultimately come across as very human, which in this context means lost and confused, trying to find their way to Cloud 9.

I'll also say this production handled the songs extremely well, turning them into simple but quite effective little musical numbers.  Yeah, the play is a musical.  Kinda/sorta.  A little bit of one anyway.

Cloud 9 plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm as well as Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm until April 24, 2016 at the Antaeus Theatre Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd (south of Magnolia) North Hollywood CA 91601.

NOTE:   This production has two complete casts who rotate in repertory.  I saw the play as done by  The Blighters but the other cast are The Hotheads.  I presume they are equal in quality to their fellows.

No comments: