Churchill's colonial Africa is barely held in check by Clive (Chris Damen, right), a British commander.
A UW student ahead of me in line at University Theatre's Friday night performance of Cloud 9 (through May 4 at UW Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre) sold the show to his friends like this: "It's about cross-dressing, sex and politics," he said, eyes ablaze. Yes, all the implied luridness is there, but the play, a witty, sophisticated farce, is so much more.
Cloud 9 was written by Caryl Churchill and spans 100 years from Act 1 to Act 2, skipping seamlessly from colonialized Africa to sexually revolutionized London. The characters on the stage age a mere 25 years. But time and location is not all Churchill bends. She's part of a Brechtian-influenced group of "epic theater" playwrights, less interested in naturalism than in forcing the audience into constant awareness they are watching a play. It's a provocative, dizzying style that leaves you uncomfortable but always engaged.
Cloud 9's first act deftly introduces complex characters with fluid identities. A white man plays a black African servant. A black male plays a white woman. And a grown female actor plays a little boy. Churchill's colonial Africa is just as precarious, barely held in check by Clive (Chris Damen), a British commander, and his family, who have come to tame the continent through love of God and Queen. Their sexual antics -- which range from bawdy adultery to lewder, darker acts -- expose them for what they truly are and call into question the very notion of "savages."
UT's stage set is a gauzy multi-layered array of sheer curtains, which perfectly physicalizes the characters' veiled world. The ensemble's performances are solid. The petulant, frenetic Edward, played by Eva Nimmer, stands out, but all in all, it's Churchill's play, and she's always the one we're most aware of.
Act 2 skips ahead to 1970s London, a time of sexual freedom and feminism. Sexuality is more overt, and identity is flattened. The blame falls squarely on Churchill here. It's a less successful act, losing the nuance of race and occupation Act 1 brings. The lessons are easier, too. The final monologue by the family's aged matriarch touts her newfound love of masturbation as a way to both know and define herself. Betty Friedan would be proud.
I found myself wondering just what the play's title means. Director Patrick Sims says that to Churchill, "the only thing that really matters ... is love." Cloud 9 is love, in other words. With no disrespect to Sims, Churchill is far too perceptive for that. Cloud 9 -- the ethereal world of rapture fulfilled -- is sex, and the play is filled with endless stories of release. In Act 1, sex eats away at the family furtively, in shadows. In Act 2, it takes center stage, and the family literally dissolves right before our eyes. Even incest is allowed a place. Sex is a tool of separation, not love. In Act 1, a character states, "The empire is one big family, and I am its black sheep." But to Churchill, empire and family are illusions. All are "black sheep."
Oh and there's cross-dressing, too.