John A. Smith
One of the characters in Caryl Churchill's blistering satire Cloud 9 says, "What we spent our adolescence thinking was an animal urge we had to suppress is, in fact, a fine art we have to acquire." He's talking about sex, but he could just as easily be describing the conflicts at the root of all human behavior.
In their coproduction of Cloud 9 (at the Bartell through April 4), do a fine job of portraying those conflicts, exposed in all their glaring hypocrisy by Churchill's brilliant, elliptical script. Her mordant wit eviscerates every pre-conceived notion about gender and race, with men playing women (and vice versa), whites portraying blacks, and mothers appearing younger than their children.
Although the play is 30 years old, it still has resonance. The first act, set in an African outpost of the British Empire during Queen Victoria's reign, explores themes of colonialism that uncomfortably parallel much of recent American political thinking. The second, set a century later in a Britain that has crumbled under the weight of its own importance, brings up issues of social and sexual freedom that speak directly to the ongoing "culture wars" within our own boundaries.
For the most part, the cast rises to the demands of the script. Casey Sean Grimm directs the action with intelligence and at a brisk pace, although there are periods that seem under-rehearsed, especially in Act Two. These uncertainties and lapses of timing will doubtless improve with performance.
The actors manfully essay English accents with varying degrees of success, but it never becomes a distraction from their characterizations. There are, however, frustrating inconsistencies in the performances, which veer from exuberant to awkward, from riveting to forgettable. Grimm needs to exert more directorial authority to address this, because the cast is clearly very talented.
Two notable performers are Mark Snowden, who is solid as both Joshua and Jerry, and Liz Angle, whose rambunctious Edward and fussy Betty are equally strong. Angle has one magnificent soliloquy in which Betty reclaims her womanhood, achieving a figurative and literal climax when she feels "triumphant because [she] was separate" from her oppressive mother and husband. It is the highpoint of the evening.
Chris Chambliss provides a simple set that partially dismantles during the first act, suggesting the dissolution of the Empire, and Victoria Hendrix's lighting is particularly effective in Act One. Original music by John Gustafson complements the action, as do songs by the Sex Pistols and the Kinks, among others. Rebecca Sites' costumes work well, although in Act One they look a little more Ruritania than Britannia. Also, the actors need to learn how to move in an era-appropriate manner --- ladies in Victoria's time did not cross their legs!
Overall, this is a commendable effort and, with a few minor adjustments, can be a first-class show. As it is, Cloud 9 is an enjoyable and provocative production that is well worth your time.