Been There, Staged That

After 20 years, Caryl Churchill's farce about sexual hang-ups has lost its ability to shock

Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner are friends, which is why finding one play by each of them in full production at the Berkeley Rep seems so cozy. (Kushner's Homebody/Kabul is on the old Thrust Stage; Churchill's Cloud Nineis next door at the Roda Theatre.) Anyone looking for a trans-Atlantic revue of the theater world's reigning left-wing polemicists just has to spend two nights -- and around 80 bucks -- on Addison Street. Cloud Nine is a British farce about gender roles written in 1979. The New Conservatory gave it a big revival last year, which was surely enough for a while. How often do we need to see farces about gender roles? Does Churchill's witty play really have so much to say to the world, 20-odd years on?

Cloud Nine is about the family of an English colonial in a nameless African country, in 1880, when Queen Victoria as well as the British Empire were at the height of influence and glory. The first act shows the father, mother, son, governess, and two family friends having wild, secret love affairs while trying to keep up a whitewashed Victorian façade. The second act shifts 100 years into the future, to 1980. The same -- or roughly the same -- collection of characters turns up in modern London, aged only 25 years. They're having familiar modern problems (strained marriages, homosexual hang-ups), which Churchill relates to the Victorian nonsense in the first act. The director, Tony Taccone, gives an explanation in the program: "The play was developed through a workshop process in which the actors, while exploring their own gender/sexual/class status in London in the late '70s, realized the degree to which their contemporary lives were shaped by the Victorian ideals of the previous century."

This is almost the whole point of the show.

As the Century Turns: Danny Scheie plays both 
modern and colonial roles in Cloud Nine.
Ken Friedman
As the Century Turns: Danny Scheie plays both modern and colonial roles in Cloud Nine.

Churchill's limited vision doesn't keep Cloud Nine from being high entertainment, at least in Act 1. The English-colonial farce has a rude, crackling energy. Clive, a pompous sahib (Timothy Crowe), comes home every night from his vague job of governing the natives to a chaotic household consisting of Betty, his fickle wife (played by Danny Scheie); Ellen, the lesbian governess (Stacy Ross); and his son, Edward (Angela Brazil), who likes to play with dolls. Ellen is in love with Betty, who's having an affair with Harry (Fred Sullivan Jr.), who seems willing to fuck everyone from the young Edward to the "Negro manservant" Joshua (Matthew Boston), and, of course, Betty. Clive has his own affair with a Mrs. Saunders (Stacy Ross), who doesn't like Clive but consents to let him crawl under her skirt. ("I do like the sensation.") Clive nevertheless insists on correct appearances. He punishes Edward for playing with dolls, and works up real indignation when his good friend Harry admits to being gay. "Rome fell, Harry!" shouts Clive, who can afford concern for the empire because he doesn't know his son has been molested.

The first act works because Taccone has directed it with such a quiet hand. Danny Scheie, as Betty, is so balanced and light, with a voice so perfectly tuned (not an outrageous falsetto but something lower, more natural), that you sometimes forget he's not female. Stacy Ross does beautifully articulated work as both Ellen, the submissive, passionate governess, and Mrs. Saunders, the adventurous neighbor with a riding crop. The story plays out on a map of the British Empire superimposed with a ridiculous portrait of Queen Victoria's eyes and crown (designed by Loy Arcenas), and if the actors didn't show so much restraint, Act 1 would just be a silly romp instead of withering political satire.

In Act 2, Clive and Betty have divorced. Their baby Victoria (played by a doll in Act 1) has become a mother (played by Angela Brazil), and Edward is a full-grown homosexual man. Clive has imploded or something -- he's disappeared completely -- which frees Timothy Crowe to play an appalling little girl in pigtails named Cathy. All the characters fret and cry in a modern London park where ghosts from the colonial past wander through a cloud-painted backdrop. None of them, though, has a really urgent problem. Are we supposed to worry about Edward's relationship problems, or Victoria's broken-down marriage, or Betty's lingering Tory self-repression? Once the point about Victorian hang-ups in 1980 has been made, what exactly are we supposed to do with it?

Masturbate, maybe. One high point in Act 2 is Betty's delicate speech about rediscovering masturbation at the age of fiftysomething. Cynthia Strickland takes over from Danny Scheie and does brilliant, nuanced work as a conservative matron finding her way out of the sexual 1800s. Timothy Crowe is also hilarious as Cathy, who screams at her mother, Lin (Stacy Ross): "You're horrid! I hate you, Mum! You smell!" ("This is the point, you see," Betty says crisply, defending the old order, "where one had help.") But all the good acting in the empire can't disguise the fact that Churchill has no way to end her drama. Cloud Nine -- which made her famous 20 years ago -- is no longer shocking, and now it feels like what it was all along, the product of a workshop to explore the arid ground of gender/sexual/class status, in London, in the late 1970s.

 
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