BWW Review: Richmond Triangle Players' CLOUD 9: A Mysterious Cup of Tea
*Review by Brent Deekens
CLOUD 9, a surrealist and satirical examination of the human condition through the prism of British culture, is a difficult play to dissect. Written by London-based playwright Caryl Churchill in 1979, this piece has polarized critics and audiences alike; Frank Rich's New York Times' review of the 1981 Off-Broadway run was mixed (with mild jeers at Churchill's own prose) despite the production winning the Obie for Best Play in 1982.
But as with other complex plays or works of art with stark and diverging opinions, such is the stuff that can potentially increase their staying-power and relevance through the ages. As such, topics ranging from gender roles to sexual politics to race relations to homosexuality - all of which appear in CLOUD 9 - seem just as pertinent today as they did nearly 40 years ago to Churchill's keen sensibilities.
Director RusTy Wilson knows this, and thus needed to assemble a game cast of actors to meet the demands of this unconventional work, especially to a modern-day American audience. And fortunately to the spectators, this company delivers with flying "Union Jack" colors (a tip-of-the-pith-helmet to Vinnie Gonzales' vibrant set design).
Before any of the cast is to be mentioned, a special commendation must go out to Erica Hughes' dialect coaching. The play's actors, with a first act set in 19th Century British-Colonized Africa and a second in modern-day (late 1970s) London, must tackle an array of varying geographical British accents. Ms. Hughes' work has been a crucial element in this play's execution.
The company is sublime, with each actor playing two roles, some even playing three - some regardless of gender. Matt Bloch makes for a magnificent Victorian matriarch in a sumptuous summer gown (Lynn West's costumes are notable from the top-down), while Caleb Wade is energetic as a sprightly five-year-old girl. Some even play multiple roles within seconds of their subsequent entrances and exits; Jennie Meharg, Laine Satterfield and Jessi Johnson are swift, versatile and seamless with their multiple changes (with due diligence from Caitlin Rose Sneed's stage management as well as Joel Furtick's Hair/Wig design).
The company wholly services the play's spine without being too self-evident about the play's ambiguous nature. Possibly in keeping with H.P. Lovecraft's mantra, "In all things that are mysterious - never explain," the play offers little elucidation (at least to the audience) for the deliberate use of gender swapping, race swapping, as well as the use of ghosts and/or the possible reincarnation of characters.
But the subject of sex is ultimately at the heart of Churchill's play, and the sociological powers it can invoke. It is fascinating to see the contrast from Larry Cook and Andrew Firda as two dapper but wanton and abusive English nobles in the first act to two fussy and aimless subverts who seek the sage advice of women for guidance in the second act. These fine gentlemen deliver terrific performances.
For all of its vagueness, the play asks: is the truest adoption of sex as the one of the most unavoidably fulfilling aspects of humanity best manifested through force or through means of supplication? Some characters are forceful with their advances while some can only beg for it - and the results with both are varied. Yet the pursuit is still in a constant state of motion for everyone.
Thus the play asks: when can things be taken too far? What lines are crossed? And could these lines exceed the limits of gender, sexual preference, age and/or race?
I was reminded of a quote from a similarly-titled novel that deals with many of the same elements in CLOUD 9:
"I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so." - David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
But I digress.
CLOUD 9 is a charmingly funny but introspective head-scratcher of a play that shouldn't be missed. The entire company, production team, and everyone at Richmond Triangle Players have delivered a solid piece of theatre. Cheers, everyone!