By Philip Pearce
CARYL CHURCHILL’S Cloud 9, now on view in the Western Stage Studio Theater, is all about sex and gender. Or more exactly our shifting human attitudes towards sex and gender. It covers the subject with a thoroughness that may not suit some local playgoers. But it’s a brilliant, funny and uncomfortable piece of social satire packaged in two hours of impressive ensemble acting.
Act One, set in 19th century colonial Africa, has the ingredients of your typical British farce. A pompous expat named Clive, played with impressive bellow and bluster by the versatile Jeff McGrath, is weary of his weepy blonde spouse Betty and launches a secret erotic attack on a visiting guest (a creepily unpredictable Niki Moon) who has just fainted on the sofa. Clive masks evidence of their high-speed affair in a later moment of live action cocktail hour finesse, better mentioned than described, that is a comic high point of the first act.
Wife Betty is meanwhile in a confused dither as she makes unsuccessful attempts at an extra marital fling with a strutting military type named Harry Bagley (Sam Trevino). She is confused because she’s unaware that Bagley is a closet homosexual with designs on their pre-teen son Edward, who puzzles his parents by constantly snatching and nuzzling his infant sister’s doll. We’re in Victorian Africa, so it all happens under a veil of repressed subterfuge. Homosexuality, adultery, pedophilia and sadomasochism run rampant but are never acknowledged or named, except in elaborate euphemisms. If all this sounds complicated, well you don’t know the half of it.
Churchill keeps you aware that you’re watching a play, not a piece of realistic modern history. She forces you to take a fresh look at those familiar sex-farce stereotypes by jumbling genders and defying social norms. Thus the male character of young Edward is played by the sublime Dawn Flood Fenton. The infant sister Victoria, whose doll he keeps stealing, is herself a ragdoll credited by name in the cast list. The very female character of Edward’s ditzy blonde mother Betty is Peter Ray Juarez, who may have some trouble with his British vowels but keeps his wig and high button boots intact in a performance deliberately and raucously over the top.
Then there’s the standard local adult African servant “boy” Joshua. Forget realistic characterization, he’s written to be acted by a Caucasian like the sly and sinister Scott Free without any alteration in make-up or dialect. As houseboy Joshua, Free sneaks blithely around sniffing out sex scandals and reporting them to Clive in a chilly British Midlands accent.
Churchill’s script even skews historic time. Act 2 moves forward a century to 1979 London, but for the three family members left over from the 19th century, son Edward, sister Victoria and mama Betty, only 25 years have passed. If that doesn’t make sense, well neither do our attitudes to sex and gender, if Churchill is any judge. Edward has grown into a confused thirty-something gay and is now played by Peter Ray Juarez, while Dawn Flood Fenton is somehow even better as an authoritative and organized fifty-something Betty than she was as the mixed-up schoolboy Edward. When I was younger and less cautious, I remember commenting that a local production would have been better if Dawn Flood had played all the parts. Where this particular performer is concerned, I need to recuse myself.
Blustery Clive has died, so in a quantum leap of creative casting, directors Lorenzo Aragon and Jon Patrick Selover have brilliantly dressed Jeff McGrath in the school uniform of a bumptious, hairy-legged junior school brat named Cathy. Loud voiced and demanding, she wreaks havoc in Hyde Park while her lesbian mom Lin, played with scary assurance by Niki Moon, tries to pick up a girl who has morphed from a first act rag doll (remember?) into a British dolly girl named Vic.
Where 19th century Africa was all sly repression, swinging 20th century London is open, unprosecuted sex of all kinds and on demand, whether you’re cruising a public park with Scott Free’s sad-eyed homosexual Gerry, or attending a pseudo-religious pagan orgy with the over- resourceful lesbian Lin. The characters actually don’t do a lot of sex, they just plan, talk, analyze and graphically comment on it so tirelessly that you want to blow a whistle and change the subject. My favorite is Sam Trevino, who is now a hyper-intellectual bloke named Martin involved in a live-in relationship with Vic. All psycho-jargon and pre-coital excitement, Martin is so obsessed with analyzing the moves and counter moves he plans to make in their next bedroom encounter that he never gets around to doing anything but talk. The object of his desires is the remarkable Sara England, who played Betty’s prim Victorian mama Maud so convincingly back in Africa that I took her for a middle-aged actress till she showed up as this dazed but attractive young London girl.
The underlying bitterness that pervades so much of the story is tempered and redeemed in its final moments by the fifty-something Betty. She’s changed from the conventional and witless young mother of those distant years in Africa into a wise, forgiving and fulfilled widow whose leisurely and touching closing monologue restores your faith in humanity and offers the best written and most beautifully acted sequence in the entire show.
Cloud 9 isn’t always easy viewing, but directors Aragon and Selover deserve some kind of royal award for this consistent and challenging airing of a controversial topic.
Photo by Richard Green