BWW Review: CLOUD 9 at Hartford Stage
CLOUD 9, one of Churchill's earliest works, written in 1979, weaves a complex tale of one family, first in Africa during the height of Victorian-age colonialism to the more liberal, free-thinking late 70's in London. While more than 100 years pass between the two acts, the characters themselves only age 25 years or so, a statement on the Victorian mindsets that still influenced much of society at the time and provide the foundations for roles and sexual identities, even in the more progressive 20th century.
The play begins somewhere in Africa, and introduces the audience to Clive (Mark H. Dold) his wife, Betty (Tom Pecinka), their young, but effeminate son, Edward (Mia Dillon), daughter Victoria (portrayed by a small doll - more on that later), mother-in-law Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas), governess Ellen (Sarah Lemp) and their African servant, Joshua (William John Austin). Over the course of Act I, other characters (and trysts between them) are introduced, including neighbor Mrs. Saunders (also played by Sarah Lemp) and explorer Harry Bagley (Chandler Williams.) The plot unfolds and begins to paint a picture of the expected roles of these characters (husband/wife, parent/child, servant/master), and the forbidden relationships also at play. A number of choices are also made as a direct reflection of these roles. Young Edward, scolded for being too effeminate and playing with dolls, is played by a mature actress; Joshua, the servant, who is black, is played by a white actor; daughter Victoria is a doll (likely a statement towards the silent and unassuming role young girls were to play at the time); and Betty, the wife, played by a man. The interactions between the characters also illustrate the mores and perceptions of the time period - homosexual trysts between explorer and servant (and young boy), unrequited love between women and the reaction to those activities by Clive, contrasted by his own infidelity (and extreme reaction to the possibility of his wife's) illustrate the hypocrisy of the time, seeing one activity as acceptable, with the other as worthy of violent reaction.
In Act II, set in the more sexually liberated 1970's, we see some progress in terms of relationships and roles, and in other ways a similar set of expectations and restrictions. The actors switch roles (and in some cases genders) and portray the same family, but now find mother Betty (Mia Dillon) a new divorcee, Edward (Tom Pecinka) and his unfaithful boyfriend, Gerry (William John Austin), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), her "feminist" husband Martin (Chandler Williams) and her new girlfriend Lin (Sarah Lemp) who is also mother to rambunctious young Cathy (Mark H. Dold.) In this act, we see that while some perceptions have changed about what is acceptable, there are still solid expectations about identity and roles.
CLOUD 9, when written, was seen as an edgy statement on the sexual climate of the time, and raised many important questions about how who we love can define who we are, and can also create conflict when pushing up against society's expectations. However, in 2017, this now feels a bit dated, even though some of the challenges presented in the play, of course, still exist. In 1979, Act I was certainly a history play and Act II a modern (and current) reaction to those historical attitudes. Now, 38 years later, it all feels like a history play and in as such, not as much of a "revolution" as an "evolution", one we have continued to see take place and in the context of today's world, is a bit out of place. The text seems to have lost some of its gravitas, and thus, some of what made it interesting and edgy when it first premiered.
Some of the choices in this production work well, for example, ElizaBeth Williamson's direction in Act I paints a pantomime-like quality drawing out the comedy of the situations. Nick Vaughan's set (and transition of the stage from Act I to Act II) also works well with two decidedly different designs that align with the context of the play. Ilona Somogyi's costumes also help paint a contrasting picture from the lace and hoop skirts of the 1870's to the bell bottoms and bright prints of 1979. But, while some things work, others just do not. The pace of the first act tends to drag a little, and there are moments (many prescribed by the script) that as an audience member I found myself confused and struggling a bit to understand.
Overall, Hartford Stage does a commendable job mounting a piece like CLOUD 9, but the piece feels dated. Though the messages of some plays withstand the test of time (and allow audiences to discover new things upon fresh review) perhaps this one has seen its time come and go. There are still important lessons to learn, of course - reflections to be made, and perceptions to be challenged, but perhaps in an updated setting or approach.
CLOUD 9 runs at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through March 19th. Hartford Stage is located at 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For more information call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.com
Top Photo: The cast of Cloud 9
Middle Photo: Mark H. Dold