Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of CLOUD 9 at the Hartford Stage
Through March 19th
I never “say” anything in my work. I invent a world. Let others decide what is being “said.” – Howard Barker, British playwright, screenwriter, poet, essayist
As we walked out of Hartford Stage’s Cloud 9 all I could think was that for many theatregoers this production, to quote Winston Churchill, “[was] a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…” All around us, people were chattering about and debating the play’s premise and the actions of its characters; others were scratching their heads, and frankly, looking a bit lost. This provocative and evocative work is one that both pushed social boundaries and individuals’ buttons. But like all good theatre, it made its audience think and its messages stuck with them long after the lights came up. Cloud 9 is surprising, thought provoking, and frequently shocking, as its subject matter, its unusual wrinkle in time, and its curious casting is more than enough to give one pause. While personally, I felt I did “get it” I, too, was thrown and even a bit unnerved by some of what I had seen; but that’s most assuredly what British playwright Caryl Churchill was looking to accomplish. Churchill is widely recognized as a creative who has distinguished herself and her works for dramatizing the abuses of power, for using non-naturalistic theatrical conventions, and for exploring sexual politics and feminist themes – and that all sums up her Cloud 9 to the proverbial T.
In a nutshell (or rather, it takes a handful of them), Cloud 9 is a gender-bending, time-bending, moral-bending, confrontational piece of stage art. Its myriad themes encompass power and politics, race, equality, family, love and sex, gender and gender identity, ethics and morality, oppression, suppression and repression, and probably others I’ve left out. And if that’s not enough, it’s also an insanely infectious romp with alternating laugh-out-loud moments and gasps of disbelief. The play opens in British Colonial Africa where we are introduced to a rather odd and colorful cast of characters – Clive, the patriarch and a colonial administrator; Betty, his wife; Joshua their black servant; Edward, Clive and Betty’s son; Victoria, Clive and Betty’s daughter; Maud, Betty’s mother; Ellen, Edward’s governess; Mrs. Saunders, a widow and neighbor; and Harry Bagley, an explorer and friend. Times are tough and the African natives are restless – but so are the rest of them. Everyone is playing their expected part, their social role; but no one is happy and they each want something other than what their proscribed personal, political, or social status allows.
Whereas Act 1 may have you scratching your head, Act 2 is likely less perplexing. Here many of the same characters resurface – and though more than a century has passed in history, it’s only a 25-year time hop for our old and new British friends. In 1979 London, we meet Gerry, an outspoken, promiscuous gay man and lover of Edward, who now is a grownup; Lin, a single mother and lesbian friend (and soon lover) to Victoria, who also is now grown and married; Cathy, Lin’s rather challenging daughter; Martin, Victoria’s husband; and a recently separated Betty. Clive is notably absent.
Now you can’t take the psychology out of this girl. Currently immersed in the theories of Carl Jung, what’s been running through my gray matter since seeing Cloud 9 are Jung’s archetypes of the persona, the shadow, the anima, and the animus to name just a few. But what are these and how do they apply to Cloud 9? The persona is in essence the mask we wear – in life or fittingly, as in theatre. The question we ask is not “Who am I?” but rather, “What do I project to others?” which is based in great part by society’s ideals and that which we choose to adopt. All of Churchill’s characters project a persona which is mostly counter to whom they really may be. Somewhat conversely, the shadow is comprised of the true elements of self which we choose to hide – our “dark side” if you will – which we repress from our outward persona. Each character grapples with their shadow element; some eventually release it by bringing it forth and ultimately incorporating it into their psyche; others continue to fight against it. And finally, the anima and animus archetypes are the idealized and repressed parts of us that run counter to our gender identities: anima are the female traits in males and animus are the male traits in females. Churchill does a fine job of illustrating this through the use of creative casting and characterization – to note a few instances, in Act 1 Betty is played by a male (who may represent what men’s expectations are of women) – in Act 2 she finds her true self and is then played by a woman (Jung would call this process of integration “individuation”). Young Edward is played by a woman in Act 1, but a man in Act 2.
I’ve also pondered the concepts of morality and utilitarianism in the play. Cloud 9’s Act 1 takes place in the late 1870s in a British colony in Africa; it’s of little surprise that much of what we see is reflective of what English philosopher John Stuart Mill said in his essay On Liberty in 1859: “The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable [or accountable] to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Individual human rights allow us maximize our happiness and to minimize our pain; but there are times we must exert self-control when society deems it necessary; especially when our actions have an impact upon others. Between Acts 1 and 2 the characters most definitely move away from societal repression and toward personal freedom and the pursuit of their individual wants and desires; however, there are some questionable actions which go well beyond sexual expression and personal pleasure and these do have an impact on others. The ding ding ding on my squeamish meter went off when Churchill delved into pedophilia and incest.
Directed by seasoned dramaturg and former Director of New Play Development, and current Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson, Cloud 9 was a near-flawless production. A stellar cast brought the at times campy and always unconventional, layered work to life. Mark A. Dold is excellent as the controlling Clive and the precocious Cathy; Tom Pecinka plays a spectacularly submissive and horribly repressed Betty as well as an endearing Edward. William John Austin is perfectly unlikeable as the simmering-beneath-the-surface “black” servant Joshua (Austin is purposely cast as white, once again juxtaposing societal expectations and persona/shadow elements) as well as the mostly unlikeable Gerry. Mia Dillon is priceless as young, effeminate Edward, a spirited boy who can’t keep his hands off his sister’s doll and later as the wiser, more wordly Betty. Emily Gunyou Halaas is a hoot as the meddling mother-in-law Maud and later the sexually questioning Victoria (interesting to note, Victoria is played by a doll in Act 1 – a female child without a voice). Sarah Lemp wears three hats in grand fashion: the governess-with-a-crush Ellen and the strong-minded, sexually voracious Mrs. Saunders, both in Act 1; and then the equally ravenous Lin in Act 2. Last, but certainly not least is a fantastic Chandler Williams as the detestable Harry Bagley who cannot keep “it” in his pants around just about everyone, and later the soon-to-become-cuckold Martin.
Shout outs must go to the fabulous scenic design by Nick Vaughan, which is both unique, simple, and dramatically transforming. Ilona Somogyi hit every high note with excellent costume design. Kudos to York Kennedy for lighting design; Andre Pluess for sound design and original composition; Cookie Jordan for wig and hair design; Fiona Kyle as dramaturg; Greg Webster as fight choreographer; Ben Furey as vocal coach, and Binder Casting, Jack Bowdan, CSA.
There are many reasons why Hartford Stage is the winner of a regional theatre Tony Award. There are far too many to enumerate, but some of the most important ones include a visionary and masterful leadership via its Artistic and Managing Directors; a professional, Broadway-caliber level of quality in each and every show it presents; its willingness to do new takes on the classics (e.g., Romeo & Juliet) and allow the public to experience new works (e.g., Queens for a Year); and its overall insightful and, at times, eclectic selection of plays that it stages.
Its production of British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 directed by Elizabeth Williamson is clearly circumscribed within the parameters above. It is a thought-provoking, well-acted, well-directed, well-staged piece of theatre.
That being said, I am not such an intellectual snob to be afraid to admit that I had no idea, from a narrative story perspective, what I had just seen. Yes, the motifs of repressed sexuality, satirical comment on the upper class’s lip service and hypocrisy, the evolution and development of feminist perspectives were all there and readily recognizable. But what was the plot about? I wanted to go straight to Barnes & Noble and get the SparkNotes. (In my English major I had straight A’s, and although I took some of the toughest courses – Milton, Chaucer, Henry James, etc. – nestled in my book bag were the Monarch Notes to each.) Since Barnes & Noble was closed, I had a lot of time to do some independent thinking about the play (as well reading the program notes and doing some research on the internet) to understand its full impact – and it was only then that I could sit down and write this review.
I cannot paraphrase or try to interpret the storyline (mainly because I am still trying to understand it), so I decided to provide the description of the play by Samuel French, the publisher:
“Both parody and spoof of the Victorian Empire and its rigid attitudes, especially toward sex. There is Clive, a British functionary; his wife Betty (played by a man); their daughter Victoria (a rag doll); Clive’s friend Harry, an explorer; Mrs. Saunders, who runs about dressed in a riding habit; Clive’s son Edward, who still plays with dolls and is played by a woman; and Joshua, a native servant who knows exactly what is really going on. What really is going on is a marvelous send-up and a non-stop round-robin of sexual liaisons. All this time the natives are restless in the background. The second act shifts to London in 1980. Except for the surviving characters, it is only twenty-five years later, and all those repressed sexual longings have evaporated, along with the Empire.”
Gender bending and gender swapping roles is the name of the game between Acts 1 and 2 where the same characters who appear in both acts are played by different actors. Indeed, in one case, there is even an inanimate-to-animate character change: Victoria in Act 1 is played by a ventriloquist’s dummy; and in Act 2 she morphs into a flesh-and-blood actor. In order to successfully pull something like this off, you need an incredible director and a multi-talented cast with flexible instruments and enormous ranges. Fortunately, Hartford Stage is endowed with both for this production. Associate Artistic Director and Cloud 9’s Director, Elizabeth Williamson, did a wonderful job capturing the satirical political and sexual climates of the Victorian Age and the late 70s to early 80s and demonstrating that, in many ways, they are still extant in our modern age’s oft-touted inclusionist mantra. As for the aforementioned second component, Cloud 9 also had the benefit of an excellent ensemble cast that proved it can play at one end of the spectrum — farce — to the opposite end – heavy drama, and everything in between. Kudos to Mark H. Dold, Tom Pecinka, William John Austin, Mia Dillon, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Sarah Lemp, and Chandler Williams.
While I am sure that the culture shock of the more risqué, ribald, and even bawdy elements of the play were more impactful to a more sensitive theatre going public in 1978 when it first premiered (obviously plays like Avenue Q, Book of Mormon, etc. have diluted the nature of the avant-garde in mainstream theatre – although I still experienced “seat squirm” vis-à-vis the pedophilia and incest issues raised in the play), Cloud 9 still resonates today with its commentary on repression, oppression, and social acceptance. The most important take-away for me was that we cannot use labels, definitions, and pre-conceived notions to pigeonhole individuals today. We all play many roles and who are we to judge others’ moral compasses?
Cloud 9 is oxymoronic in countless ways; a funny-serious, comedic-dramatic, inventive-derivative, conservative-liberal, understated-over-the-top look at social interaction that is probably more relevant to today’s climate than when it premiered thirty-eight years ago.