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When Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine premiered in 1979 at Dartington College of the Arts, near Devon, England, homosexuality had been decriminalized by Parliament only a dozen years earlier. There are many remarkable and surprising things in Churchill’s landmark play, a funny, fantastical study of the burdens placed upon us by expectations, and whether they can ever really be thrown off. But perhaps most remarkable is to consider how its gleeful gender- and orientation-bending — men play women, and women play men; a Victorian explorer is revealed to be gay and a Victorian matron considers lesbianism; a modern Londoner frankly discusses a gay tryst, while his once-and-perhaps-future boyfriend ends up in a happy menage-a-trois home with his bisexual sister, her lesbian partner and the two women’s children — would have been received in a Britain on the verge of Thatcherism.
Of course, we know it was received well enough, shocking though it may have been. The original Cloud Nine toured England, then ended up at the Royal Court. It came to New York in 1981 for an off-Broadway run (directed by Tommy Tune, no less) that played for two years. The play returns in its first major New York revival at the Atlantic Theater Company. Several decades later, its outlook, if not quite its circa-’79 fashion, feels entirely current as an examination of gender and social roles and broad-minded, matter-of-fact sexuality. It remains intriguing, if no longer quite so subversive.
The first act of Cloud Nine transpires in a household on the outskirts of the British Empire in Africa. Clive (Clarke Thorell, full of Imperial brio and bluster) is a colonial administrator and the master of his family; he is dedicated to country and Queen and, less so, to civilizing the savages under his rule. His wife, Betty, a model of Victorian devotion, is played by a man (Chris Perfetti, sweet and always conflicted). “I am a man’s creation as you see, and what men want is what I want to be,” Betty explains by way of introduction.
Their young son, Edward, bratty and effeminate, is played by a woman (Brooke Bloom) and is forever being hectored to be more like a man. Daughter Victoria is a ventriloquist’s dummy. There’s also a mother-in-law (Lucy Owen, quietly droll), who is dour and widowed and forever mindful of obligation, a sort of a Victoria of the veld; a governess (Izzie Steele) smitten with Betty; and finally a loyal black manservant, Joshua (Sean Dugan), who is played by a white man. “My skin is black but oh my soul is white,” Joshua says. “What white men want is what I want to be.”
Things are on edge in Clive’s home, because the natives are restless. The troubles bring a widowed neighbor, Mrs. Saunders (Steele again), to stay with them; Clive, who demands fidelity from Betty, lusts after Mrs. Saunders. Their other visitor, Clive’s old friend Harry Bagley (John Sanders), a swashbuckling explorer, lusts after Betty — when he’s not buggering servant Joshua, or fiddling with eager participant Edward.
Director James Macdonald, a frequent Churchill collaborator, has turned the Linda Gross Theater, that former church on West 20th Street, into a theater in the round, building a simple pine seating structure around a small central playing space that is, for the first act, dusted with red plastic pebbles and accessorized with only a few chairs (and, of course a Union Jack in the distance). The effect is to accentuate the theatricality of the endeavor, of Churchill’s semi-ironic, farcical script. Everything is constructed; everyone is playing a role.
But in the Victorian era, those roles are clear. Clive suppresses a rebellion, even if that means Joshua’s parents are killed. Mrs. Saunders packs up and moves out. Edward will be sent off to school. And Harry, after Clive learns of the great man’s homosexuality — “rivers will be named after you; it’s unthinkable,” the dutiful Imperial administrator exclaims — is married off to governess Ellen. The act ends if not happily than as it’s supposed to: At the wedding party, while Clive speechifies. Joshua, standing guard, slowly lowers his rifle, aiming it at Clive, but before he does anything with it the lights black out. For that final moment, order is restored.
Similar order does not reign in the second act, which is set in and around a London park in 1979. (This time, the flagpole is empty.) It’s a century or so later, but for the characters, only 25 years has passed. This temporal disconnect is not explained; it just is. It’s Churchill’s way, a little mysterious and a lot effective, of contrasting the two eras, with the same set of characters, only somewhat older.
Now, everyone is liberated, extravagantly so. The act opens with Gerry (Dugan, formerly the servant) casually describing a gay train-station pickup and on-train tryst. Gerry is the won’t-be-pinned-down boyfriend of grown-up Eddy, as he’s now called (and who’s now played by Perfetti, seen previously as Betty). His sister, Vicky (Owen, formerly Clive’s mother-in-law), is in an unhappy marriage to domineering Martin (Sanders, formerly Harry, the explorer), who goes on and on about his feminism while bedding women who are not his wife. “I’m writing a novel about women,” he pronounces at one point, “from the women’s point of view.” That he is oblivious is the joke.
Vicky falls for Lin (Steele, previously the governess), a divorced lesbian whose child plays in the same park. The daughter, Cathy, is played by Thorell, Act I’s man of the house. Finally their mother, Betty (Bloom, the woman who played young Edward), has left her husband and is figuring out how to live on her own. She is a figure from another era — not Victorian, but out of place in gloves and crisply tailored suits — trying to make sense of the world in which she finds herself.
Slowly, eventually, everyone sort of does. Vicky and Eddy and Lin form a happy household, raising both kids and amiably sharing custody with Martin. There are signals that Gerry may finally be ready to settle down with Eddy. Betty lets go of her rules and judgments and seems to, maybe, become happy — not least because, as she rapturously reports, she has rediscovered masturbation.
The cast is strong, although some of the act-to-act transformations are less meaningful than Betty’s. Thorell, so humorously, stolidly British as Clive, isn’t especially interesting as young Cathy, even across gender and generation. There’s a sense of fun in the performers that is lost from Act I to Act II, or at least in the characters, which renders their performances less crackling.
“If there isn’t a right way to do things, you have to invent one,” Betty tells Gerry in the play’s final scene before getting a hug from Victorian Betty. It’s an epigraph for the play, which finds the similarities and differences between the right ways to do things in colonial Africa and the improvised ways they’re done in 1979 London — places where, Churchill seems to be telling us, things, or at least people, were more the same than different, despite radically changed appearances. We’re always just inventing it.
Cast: Brooke Bloom, Sean Dugan, Lucy Owen, Chris Perfetti, John Sanders, Izzie Steele, Clarke Thorell
Director: James Macdonald
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Gabriel Berry
Lighting designer: Scott Zielinski
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
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