Review: CLOUD 9 a Delightful Commentary of Absurd Proportions

By: Nov. 04, 2016
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From L to R: Shane Howell, Derek Grose, Alec Ruiz

There's always a lot to be said about a Caryl Churchill play. Her post-modern presentations on sexuality, gender, or political controversy invoke strong feelings regardless of the audience. Cloud 9 marked Churchill's foray into the mainstream theatrical eye, first performed in 1979 after twenty years of her works going rather unnoticed. The play, focusing on sexual oppression and gender politics between imperial English rule in colonial times through modern London, was M.F.A. candidate Sarah Lucas' choice to showcase, a brave and risky choice even forty years later. Director Lucas, fully aware of the capabilities and dangers of the farce itself, maneuvers an impressive talent through the lengthy show and gives cohesion to the nonsense in a way that imbues clarity into Churchill's most absurd moments.

Explaining Cloud 9 is a challenge itself, as is almost any post-modern writing. The first act takes place in colonial English Africa, where a family deals with infidelity, race relations, philosophical understanding. The second act takes place in modern London, with some characters having transferred only twenty-odd years to find themselves there. Similar themes of oppression, gender, and fidelity remain.

From L to R: Derek Grose, Alec Ruiz, Shane Howell

Churchill's Cloud 9 gets muddled when you realize that many female characters are played by male actors in the show, the black African servant is played by a white actor, a young boy is played by a fully grown woman, and a baby is a strange unmoving rope doll. Different actors and actresses play the same character between the two acts, gender means little. The unusual framing device allows the show to find humor in incest, the sexual predation of a child, and other unsavory topics.

Lucas deftly moves in and out of reality with her production, utilizing the Florida State University Lab Theatre as an intimate, threatening space. The black box seems to move back and forth between Africa, London, concrete, and absurd. Her handling of the script, as well as the cast, makes the production one of the few to turn Cloud 9 into an enjoyable, fulfilling show.

Her cast is led by impeccable performers making their return to the Lab, including Alec Ruiz, Shane Howell, Erin McNellis, and Derek Grose. Howell plays large roles in both acts, the matriarch Betty in Africa, the effeminate son Edward in London. Howell doesn't act silly, or over the top, in his flowing dress, but instead lends a serious tension to the show that gives good foil to Grose's audacity. Ruiz is the central driving force of Lucas' first act, a strong straight man to the shenanigans, impressive in his presence. Ruiz and Howell are the strength that turns the first act into something digestible, enjoyable even. The otherwise silly first act is lacking in scriptural integrity, but Grose's performance as Harry, Max Bowen's incredible Joshua, Jae Coutrier's minor (but great) performances as Mrs. Saunder and Soldier, and McNellis' caricaturish Edward all add the humor, but the family's center is a saving grace.

Alec Ruiz

In London, Kariana Sanchez's Victoria is the tour de force. Sanchez was the one-off joke in Africa, but she gives depth to gender confusion, sexual exploration, and the thematic density of the second half. Along with Macy Lanceta's Lin, the duo explore complex feminist themes while Derek Grose gives voice to male chauvany. In parallel, Max Bowen blooms as a gay prowler in a set of dark monologues, escaping the reliably loyal Howell. Ruiz will evoke a lot of laughter in the second act for reasons audiences will enjoy being shocked by, and he is certainly as strong in his humor as his straight drama, but it seems that Lucas wanted the second act to be a bit more serious.

The black box limits the scope of Lucas' technical team, but not the quality of output. Krista Franco's set design is simple, but just abstract and moving enough to push the changes between scenery and time. Franco's set works well with Genny Wynn's slight lighting, pushing green grass in the picnic scenes of the first act, a darkness in the second act's prowling and orgy, working to give an atmosphere to the intimate staging. More than anything, Mollie LaTorre's costumes, a constantly rotating design that necessitated crisp show and manageable quick changes, are ideal for the production. Her designs range from Edward's over-the-top sailor outfit to the classic, yet detailed, dress that Howell's Betty wears.

While Cloud 9 may be a complicated, grating show, Lucas has shaped it into one that delivers the themes of lust, love, and oppression into a wonderful production. A show like Cloud 9 needs a precision behind the performance, something Lucas has embedded into Howell, Sanchez, Ruiz, Grose, McNellis, and the rest. Despite the controversial thematic elements and farcical nature, Lucas' Cloud 9 is a stand-out production that succeeds in all the right places.

Cloud 9 runs at the Lab Theatre at Florida State from November 4th-13th. Tickets may be purchased online or at the door. Due to mature content and language, Cloud 9 is recommended for mature audiences.


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