Brit scripter Caryl Churchill developed this 1981 Obie winner through a series of workshop sessions with an experimental ensemble, which is evident in the work’s strong emphasis on meaty characterizations at the sacrifice of structural throughline. This oft-times zany, thematically chaotic, gender-bending farce peruses the jaundiced evolution of British social/sexual/racial politics without ever settling on a definitive point of view. The show works best when the farcical elements are played to the hilt with each character striving to dominate the proceedings. Helmer Harry Mastrogeorge attempts to approach the work as melodrama, placing too much emphasis on a mercurial text that cannot stand up to Mastrogeorge’s close scrutiny. For the most part, a hard-working but uneven ensemble lives down to his staging.
With men playing women, women playing little boys, little boys playing with dolls, dolls playing people, and people running amuck in general, “Cloud 9” obliterates conventional ideas about families, love, sex and anything else having to do with relationships. Everything from time to gender is subjective. Unfortunately, Mastrogeorge’s pacing is so turgid, the ensemble becomes weighed down by their portrayals, failing to catapult Churchill’s intended wild flight of fancy.
The first act, which deals with sexual repression, focuses on an English colonial family in Africa in 1880. Clive (James Morrison), the head of the family, is cheating on his wife with the perverse Mrs. Saunders (Susan Savage). Clive’s wife Betty (Don Winston) is smitten with the dashing explorer/adventurer Harry Bagley (Ben Livingston), a bisexual pedophile who is having carnal knowledge with everyone in sight, including Betty’s quite willing young son Edward (Ione Skye) and Clive’s ever-taciturn but secretly seething African servant Joshua (Jordan Marder). Meanwhile, Edward’s weepy governess Ellen (also Savage), has the constant hots for Betty. Completing the household is Betty’s disapproving mother Maud (Blake Lindsley) and Betty’s toddler of a daughter Victoria, who is so passive that she is played by a doll.
The second act is set in swinging London of 1980; though 100 years have passed, the characters have only aged 25 years. Now an adult, soft-spoken Edward (Morrison) has embraced his homosexuality and strives for nothing more than to be a loving housewife to handsome but unfaithful Gerry, a rapacious sexual opportunist who even attracts the amorous attentions of Edward’s recently divorced mother Betty (Savage). Married sister Victoria (Skye) is beginning to assert her independence from hubby Martin (Livingston) with the aggressive help of her lesbian friend Lin (Lindsley). Completing this new menagerie of conflicted folk is Lin’s overly vivacious young daughter Cathy (Marder).
It is possible to present this play in dozens of different ways with people of different ages, sexes and races playing the various characters. There is a certain logic to having Morrison play Clive in the first act and his own grown son in the second but it doesn’t really serve to illuminate the intentions of either character. They are each stand-alone personalities. Morrison comes close to attaining the proper buffoonish haughtiness as the overbearing, homophobic Clive but is done by his introspective turn as Edward.
Skye (star of Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything”) exudes an appealing irreverent vivacity as young Edward but is ponderously measured and overly reflective as Victoria. This cannot be said for Lindsley, who instills much-needed humor in her portrayals of mom-in-law Betty and hot-to-trot Lin.
The most winning portrayal is turned by Livingston, who infuses Bagley with a truly comical aura of British propriety, even while in the midst of dalliances with boys, servants and whomever else is available, even a shocked Clive. In sharp contrast, Livingston exudes a humor-filled humanity as Victoria’s long-suffering husband Martin.
Kis Kneckt’s awkward 19th-century veranda-turned 20th-century park setting presents more problems than it solves, often hindering the flow of ensemble traffic. The costumes of Nicole Ashton are impressively true to both time periods.