Head for Central Square and be on CLOUD 9! The Nora Theatre Company’s latest production puts you there. An extremely nimble ensemble directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner takes Caryl Churchill’s rambunctious, gender-bending, time-warping, traditional and taboo sexual roundelay and skewers white patriarchal oppression from Victorian British Colonial Africa (Act I) to swinging late ’70’s London (Act II). Though the acts are literally 100 years apart, only 25 years pass in the lives of the characters.
Act I is set in 1880 on the African estate of a British Colonial administrator who presides over his household and his land, and the natives are on the verge of rebelling. Churchill is already there. The play immediately challenges the imperiousness of British order by having Clive played by a woman (the remarkable Stephanie Clayman who will play Clive’s wife in Act II), and his simpering wife Betty played by a man (the hilarious Joshua Wolf Coleman). Daughter Victoria is played by a doll; yes, women are mere playthings in Act I where white men rule the roost and the sun never sets.
Betty bemoans her inferior status early on by declaring, “I’m a man’s creation.” The line is funny not only because it’s played by a man in drag, but also because it calls attention to the way men have shaped and dominated this world. Son Edward an effeminate boy who loves to play with Vicki’s doll, is also played by a woman (Sophorl Ngin who plays the grown-up Victoria in Act II). Ed is attracted to dashing explorer and houseguest Harry Bagley (a moving Alexander Platt who plays the grown-up Edward now gay in Act II) who reciprocates the boy’s affections, though he pretends to love Betty as a cover for his pedophilia.
Their native servant Joshua is played by a white actress (standout Marge Dunn who plays Victoria’s lesbian lover Lin in Act II) and in a sublimated act of self-hatred, announces he has no trouble beating the rebelling native servants because they are “bad.” The widow Mrs. Saunders (Aislinn Brophy in a challenging simultaneous dual role as Edward’s governess Ellen who is in love with Clive’s wife Betty) is pursued by Clive, while his wife Betty loves handsome Harry who’s had his way with her son Edward.
Hang in there. Believe it or not, this is all remarkably easy to keep track of in the course of the play and the echoing of these roles in Act II 25 years later in each of these lives, enriches the pull of these characters.
The set is simple, therefore no detail is wasted. For instance there there’s a cut-out of a giant tree hanging sideways over the proceedings, an affront to the order of the traditional English garden and a signal to the subversion at work in Act I. By Act II what was subverted is now overt, and culminates in a playful orgy in a park where Edward, his sister Victoria, and her sometime lover Lin (now played by different actors) help themselves to a fabulously choreographed pansexual feast under the full goddess moon. Where the masculine once reigned supreme, the feminine is now on the horizon and Eve holds sway in this new garden of Eden.
It’s a tilt-a-whirl of a plot, where the proclivities of these characters who have been twisted into compliance with “traditional” norms are set free, and this versatile, brilliant ensemble straddles the breadth of realities their multi-roles demand. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner finds the though line of this intellectually challenging work and the tonal range it demands, veering from shrewd parody in Act I to fully felt characterizations in Act II. This production of Churchill’s funny, stinging screed never loses its bite or its heart.
CLOUD 9 has also proven remarkably prescient and increasingly relevant. With its cross-gendered, cross-racial casting and omnisexual orientation, the play finds itself preaching to many of the converted in 2019. The diversity of human experience represented here, and always present in society but repressed, is currently exploding our preconceptions and finding a voice in political debate, scientific inquiry, nightly newscasts, and everyday dinner table conversations.
See The Nora Theatre Company’s fascinating and facile production of Caryl Churchill’s CLOUD 9; it reminds us the sky may not be the limit. At CENTRAL SQUARE THEATER through JUNE 30!