BWW Review: Caryl Churchill's CLOUD NINE Parallels Colonialism and Sexual Oppression
Caryl Churchill's off-beat 1979 commentary of colonialism and sexual oppression, CLOUD NINE, has been described as carnivalesque in style; a reflection on its treatment of serious subjects with an absurd view of reality. Director James Macdonald seems to take that description to heart in his terrific Atlantic Theater Company revival by having set designer Dane Laffrey remove the venue's traditional rows of chairs and replacing them with arena-style carnival seating on a circle of wooden benches. (Authentically cramped, unfortunately.)
Light on plot, Churchill's dark comedy bends time, gender and race in an evening that is more fixed on roles and relationships. The first act is set in a late 19th Century British colony in Africa, where Clarke Thorell's blustery head of the household, Clive, is full of imperial pride in his position as an administrator aiming to bring civilization to the native population.
His wife, Betty, is scripted to be played by a man realistically playing a woman and Chris Perfetti displays obedient devotion in the role. The effeminate behavior of their young son, Edward (Brooke Bloom) is of major concern to Clive and as for their daughter, Victoria... she's represented by a ventriloquist's dummy.
There is word of an uprising by the locals brewing, but their African servant, played by white actor Sean Dugan (no makeup is used), declares his loyalty to the crown. His declaration, "What white men want is what I want to be," parallels Betty's sentiment, "What men want is what I want to be."
The arrivals of a widow seeking safety (Izzie Steele) and an explorer (John Sanders) lead to episodes of infidelity, homosexuality, pedophilia; all of which must be kept secret in order to maintain proper appearances.
The second act takes place in a public park in 1979, but the characters from act one have only aged twenty-five years and are played by different actors. Betty (Bloom) has left Clive, Edward (Perfetti) is openly gay, or maybe bi, with a promiscuous boyfriend (Dugan), and Victoria (Lucy Owen) is no longer a dummy... and she's openly gay.
Thorell has been recast from the dominating white heterosexual male to a bratty five-year-old girl.
While societal roles are dictated by men in the first act, the plays second half presents a freer society where women and gay people have more command of their lives. The double casting allows for characters to eventually encounter their former selves and a very special moment shows 20th century Betty bonding with the woman who paved the way for her.