Defying Gravity, Gender, and Genre in Cloud 9

Caryl Churchill’s play takes a gimlet-eyed look at British colonialism and sexual repression.

Caryl Churchill specifies in her list of Cloud 9 characters (at Custom Made Theatre through Dec. 15) that adult actors should be cast in the children’s roles. And, additionally, that men will play women and vice versa. There’s also a note to say that a black servant named Joshua will be played by a white actor (in this case, Alan Coyne). The interpretation of these instructions in this production is, at times, obvious. By which I mean dubious. The director Allie Moss — intent on staging a revolving door of exits and entrances — never lets the galloping pace flag. Rather than trusting the script to subtly convey the ideas, she’s determined to make it be known to the audience that we’re watching a COMEDY.

The most egregious example is watching Alejandra Wahl and Evan Winet go big as the aforementioned children. So big that they forget that children have souls, however ragged and primitive. They’re imaginative and not just mad, hyper-emotional poppets. Suggesting the use of baby talk as a means of delivering a young person in a grownup’s body to the stage is an outside-in approach that ends badly, in two grating caricatures. It reads as the first and only take on what the playwright’s trying to achieve with all of these fungible identities. 

Fortunately, some actors find a balance between restraint and silliness. Mario Mazzetti, as Betty, is an unhappily married, Victorian-era wife and mother. Betty throws herself on the ground twice in the manner of an old-fashioned hysteric suffering from an attack of the vapours. Her moodiness is pitched to achieve melodramatic highs. Mazzetti is in drag alright, but pensively so. He’s doing his very best to bring Betty’s thoughts to life. 

Renee Rogoff, in multiple roles, often bares her teeth to express the characters’ desires. Her smiles turn into lewd, shameless, and shrewdly effective snarls. In the second act, when the scenario moves forward in time to a more contemporary setting, her voice keeps breaking instinctively, carrying angry or hurt emotions. Which might lead you to believe that Cloud 9 is a melodrama rather than a comedy. But you have to listen closely and carefully to Churchill’s language. She employs tried and true aspects of a melodrama then filters them through a bleak comic lens. When Cloud 9 works best, the dry humor plays out in droll exchanges and understated insults. Sometimes this British snark makes it across the Atlantic. Sometimes it just doesn’t land.   

Americans interpreting the text, and the right tone, must be challenged by the breakneck speed with which Churchill keeps switching genres. She sets Act I in colonial Africa, where Betty’s clueless British family is about to stare down a rebellion. The white people dilly-dally about on their misappropriated estates while the colonized black populace lies in wait for the opportunity to get rid of them. 

At first, Cloud 9 resembles a Chekhovian drawing room drama but the playwright clears away any dreary signs of existential angst. The play is also freed from the strictures of plotting. One scene plays out in the manner of a bawdy sex romp. And the next one that follows is a serious disquisition on the pros and cons of promiscuity.  

Churchill dares the audience to keep up with her historical allusions without making anyone feel like a crowned dunce. She deftly structures the repressive hypocrisies of the 19th century against our more liberated present. Characters from Act I who can’t be honest about their sexuality evolve and shift in Act II. Taboo subjects like pedophilia and incest are part of her gamesmanship too. When a brother and sister start to sleep with each other, nobody appears to object to or question the arrangement, including their mother. 

Boundaries in Cloud 9, especially those imposed upon us by an oppressive patriarchy, can pervert us. Churchill suggests, however, that our chaotic inner lives can never be controlled. They’ll always find a way to run amok.  

Cloud 9, through Dec. 15 at The Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St. $25-$55; 415-798-2682. www.custommade.org  

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