Some plays, despite their era-specificity, live long and vigorous theatrical lives while others, completely dependent on their era’s issues, are museum pieces. “Cloud 9,” Caryl Churchill’s 1979 skewering of sexual politics, has aged well; it may have lost some of its shock value, since such skewerings are no longer news, but until empire-building, feminism and homophobia are no longer button-pushing issues, this play lives. That fact is handsomely and hilariously proven in the delightful production that launches Wilma Theater’s Churchill festival.
“Cloud 9” begins in 19th century Africa with a British colonial officer, his wife and two children, a family friend just returned from exploring the jungle and the household’s servants. This parodically patriotic, paternalistic, homophobic Victorian world is tilted by the gender- and race-bending casting required by the script: Betty, the deferential wife, is played by a male actor;the African servant by a white actor; and Edward, the young son, by an adult female actor.
Act two shifts to contemporary London where the same characters are, inexplicably but necessarily, only 25 years older. The actors rearrange themselves into new significance — you solve one problem only to create another: failed marriages, single motherhood, bratty children, confused sexual orientation and consciousness-raised husbands. The remaining shred of the British Empire, Northern Ireland, produces only a soldier who is bored to death until he is actually killed. The doubling also comments, retroactively and subtly, on the actors’ act one roles.
Director Blanka Zizka has found just the right tone, delivering both the clever dialogue and the political punch: arch but never camp, highly theatrical but not vaudevillian — although the songs all go on too long.
Mimi Lien’s witty set shifts from a colorful jungle full of doors and windows (not to mention giraffes) to a drab playground. Similarly the costumes shift from the splendid discomfort of the 19th century uniforms and corseted gowns to the sloppy comfort of unisex pants and shirts. With monkeys and birds shrieking throughout the theater, and with a lighting design that amuses at every opportunity, the production doesn’t miss a chance.
The cast is superb, transforming themselves with glee and absurd believability. Especially appealing are Kraig Swartz as the Victorian wife, so demure and languid (with the tiniest glimpse of a hairy chest above the lacy bodice) who returns in act two as the grown-up, homosexual Edward who longs to be a conventional wife and suspects he may really be a lesbian.
Edward, the boy who loves dolls and his Uncle Harry, is played by tiny Amy Fitts in Act One who will transform into middle-aged Betty in Act Two. David Strattan White as the black houseboy (he is blond for good measure) adopts an African accent somehow both accurate and funny; he returns in act two to play a little girl, immensely tall in her roller skates, wearing a pink dress and carrying a gun.
After much comic and pointed complication, “Cloud 9” resolves in a tableau, as contemporary Betty embraces her young self (and thus, given the roles both actors played in act one, the two Edwards embrace). It is a very human, moving moment of self-acceptance. Personal history and public history meet, and Churchill shows us that the present cannot become a meaningful future unless it acknowledges the past.
The Wilma’s festival will continue with “A Number,” as well as five directed readings of other Churchill plays, introducing Philadelphia audiences to a brilliant playwright too long missing from this local scene.