The first act of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine takes place in 1879, as colonial administrator Clive (Clarke Thorell) attempts to control a mild uprising by the indigenous population. His wife Betty (Chris Perfetti) struggles with her attraction to the explorer Harry Bagley (John Sanders), who is himself harboring conflicted feelings about his homosexuality, though this does not prevent him from having sex both with Clive’s young son Edward (Brooke Bloom) and his “boy” Joshua (Sean Dugan). Joshua is, according to Ms. Churchill, “played by a white man because he wants to be what whites want him to be” and Betty is “payed by a man because she wants to be what men want her to be.” Likewise, Edward, who would rather “mind” dolls than ride horses, is played by a woman.
The second act skips one hundred years, though only twenty-five have passed for the characters. Thus Edward (now Mr. Perfetti) is a young man in late ‘seventies London, trying to play wife for his promiscuous lover, Gerry (Mr. Dugan). Betty (now Ms. Bloom) has left Clive and is both thriving and foundering as an old single woman; her daughter, Victoria (Lucy Owen), who was represented by a doll instead of an actor before intermission, takes a break from her husband Martin (Mr. Sanders), who is supportive of her liberation (and bisexuality) but nevertheless retains some of the patriarchal postures of the previous generation.
In her introduction to the play, Ms. Churchill writes that it is concerned with “the parallel between colonial and sexual oppression,” but at points this means she conflates rather than complicates, simplifying both oppressions for rhetorical clarity. Though it may score the author points for experimentation, casting a white actor as Joshua drains the play of some of its emotional and political power. However, the mixed-gender casting, probably because it does not require the same kind of homogeneity, is more successful: relationships that are narratively heterosexual are performatively homosexual and vice versa, underscoring both the fluidity of sexuality and the constructed nature of our relationships to each other. (“Through our father we love our Queen and our God,” Clive tells Edward.)
Ms. Churchill is also a master inheritor of epic theater, frequently using Brecht’s devices with impressive ease. Cloud Nine opens with some hilariously stilted introductions—“This is my family. Though far from home / We serve the Queen wherever we may roam”—setting the tone for a farce based on the failure of Victorian values. When Clive discovers his friend is gay (after Harry misinterprets Clive’s monologue about the light that “burns brightly” only between men), he cries, “You must get married … Think of England,” a nice inversion of the phrase, “Close your eyes and think of England,” advice allegedly used to help women get through unpleasant sex with their husbands. Meanwhile, Clive performs mental gymnastics to justify his son’s proclivity for stealing Victoria’s dolls: “Yes, it’s manly of you, Edward, to take care of your little sister. We’ll say no more about it.”
The cast, too, is phenomenal. Ms. Owen, playing Betty’s mother Maud, floats around the stage, dressed in all black and personifying classic British drollness. “Young women are never happy,” she tells her daughter, “Then when they’re older they look back and see that comparatively speaking they were ecstatic.” Her face, drawn and inexpressive, betrays no trace of familiarity with the feeling of ecstasy. In the second act, Mr. Thorell plays a little girl, and the naturalness with which he embodies those unmistakable, childish mannerisms—stuttering through sentences, holding one’s hands as if they were slightly foreign—is wonderful.
So if Cloud Nine can occasionally feel politically naïve, it still manages to be comedically superb. Presented in the round, it works best as a light satire (rather than a profound indictment) of the white patriarchy and its ability to perpetuate our belief in infallible national, racial, and sexual constants. “We did a certain amount of damage,” Clive tells Harry, “set a village on fire and so forth.” When Harry asks if this was necessary, Clive prickles: “Obviously it was necessary, Harry, or it wouldn’t have happened.”
Cloud Nine runs through November 1st at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 40 minutes. One intermission.