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It's easy to be on cloud nine as a talented cast from the Yale School of Drama under an astute director present a rambunctious yet pointed revival of one of playwright Caryl Churchill’s early plays, “Cloud Nine,” at the Isenman Theater in New Haven through Saturday, January 26.
While I generally refrain from reviewing college productions, I have been noticing that the caliber of acting and production in college-level and, in particular, graduate school level efforts have significantly increased in recent years. Plus, I have been impressed by much of the work of Yale Drama School students in various Yale Repertory Theatre productions. Finally, “Cloud Nine” remains a special favorite of mine, though I last saw a production in the early 1980’s, I count it among my more memorable stage experiences.
With its satirical, yet strong attacks on male supremacy, its gender-bending approach to casting and its willingness to embrace gay and lesbian characters in such a romantically positive way, the play effectively captured a progressive ethos of the time that unfortunately would continue to be resisted by many of the powers that be for decades to come.
While watching “Cloud Nine” one can almost feel Churchill’s frustration with the gender inequality and military obsessiveness that continued to dominate the English conversation at the time Churchill was writing her piece. She deploys raucous humor during her first act, which takes place in colonial Africa during Victorian times, while taking a more tender yet still enjoyably funny tone in the second which takes place nearly 100 years later in a London park in 1979.
Her great theatrical conceit is that the characters in the first act reappear in the second act, but not only are they played by different actors, the characters themselves have only aged about 25 years. Odd as that sounds, it works remarkably well, allowing the audience to see how a few members of the family at the center of the play have grown and developed.
In many ways, Churchill is indicating that genuine fulfillment for the characters we first meet in the late 19th century would only begin to be possible in the late 1970’s, and even then, the vestiges of male domination, societal expectations and military colonialism would still be facts of day-to-day British life.
Director Margot Bordelon has clearly embraced Churchill’s text with a deep appreciation and understanding, offering a heartfelt production that is as enjoyable as it is rewarding. She and her scenic designer, Kate Noll, have created a triptych of a colonialoutpost and the surrounding brush, anchored by a mildly expansive veranda, to center the first act, while opening the stage to suggest a park like setting with a few trees, benches, swings and pole lamps for the second. Costume designer Elivia Bovenzi gets to have a field day in the first act creating high collared proper Victorian garb for the constrained ladies and traditional uniforms and adventurer garb for the rather pompous men. She also effectively captures the mixed bag of outfits that characterized the somewhat schizophrenic atmosphere of the late ‘70’s, of a society undergoing a re-evaluation of its strictures and structures.
“Cloud Nine” is also a great exercise for the Yale graduate students as well, as the actors are expected to play different roles in each act and, in some cases, to trade genders and even races. Significantly, Betty, the wife of the colonial official Clive, is in Churchill’s creation to be played by a man, while Clive’s “man,” or native servant, Joshua, is to be played by a white actor. This underlines the power of men of that era to define the roles and direct the actions of those in their power. As Betty admits, these women are fashioned by the men to their specifications. At the same time, Clive remains blissfully ignorant of any details surrounding his servant’s personal life, unaware of any tribal affiliation or potential sympathy for the rioting natives. In the second act a child named Cathy is to be played by the actor who played Clive in the first, which in addition to being deliciously ludicrous (the actor retains his moustache), underscores the changing gender stereotypes beginning to be seen in more contemporary times.
The first act focuses on Betty and Clive’s life on the outpost, where they have been accompanied by their young children, Edward, a sensitive young boy who is played by a female, and the baby, Victoria, who is played by a doll, Churchill’s droll comment on the value of female children in a male dominated society. They are joined by Betty’s proper mother, Maud, the children’s nanny, Ellen, and family friend Harry, of the macho jungle explorer type. Churchill turns the conventions of Victorian society on their heads, as it is revealed that Clive has been carrying on with the widowed neighbor, while Betty has secretly carried a torch for Harry, who has been known to play around with Joshua every once in a while and who is secretly worshipped by young Edward. The nanny reveals feelings toward Betty, who remains throughout frustrated, lonely, and unhappily tied to both her husband’s position as well as her society’s restricted expectations.
The second act finds a Betty, now played by a woman, taking a few tenuous steps toward self-actualization by deciding to leave Clive, while her grown children, the now gay Edward and the unhappily married Victoria, maneuver through their unexpected territories with a little more confidence. Edward will be able to shed his straying boyfriend, while Victoria will explore the possibilities of love with another mother she meets in the park. The two plot lines will ultimately cross paths by the end of the evening, on a note of grace and acceptance that grants the possibility of hope.
Director Bordelon’s cast wonderfully captures the whimsy and seriousness at co-exist at the heart of Churchill’s play. Timothy Hassler is especially winning as the much put-upon Betty in the first act and as the gentle searching Edward in the second, striving to determine what he wants and needs in companionship and relationships. Chris Bannow is equally fine as the obedient but subtly judgmental servant Joshua and later as Edward’s cocky, restless, macho boyfriend.
The grown Victoria is played as an intelligent yet unfulfilled mother by Molly Bernard, who earlier played the talkative moppet Edward more interested in playing with his sister’s dolls than going shooting with his father. Brenda Meaney, who performed double duty in the first act as the nanny and the boldy assertive widow, easily slides into the role of second-act Betty who remains fearful of the world she’s stepping into, yet aware that it is something she must do. Gabe Levey provides undeniable fun fitting into the stereotype of the unaware colonial authority and then portraying a three-year old girl’s annoying curiosity and tantrums.
Mickey Theis is excellent as everyone’s idea of the African explorer while equally managing the role of Victoria’s social-striving husband, adjusting to the new rules of fatherhood and sharing responsibilities that are emerging. Hannah Leigh Sorenson’s role as Betty’s mother is somewhat nondescript, but she shines as Lin, Cathy’s laissez-faire mother and new source of strength and passion for the adult Victoria.
The term “cloud nine” is not one I’ve heard a lot since the play’s American premiere in the early ‘80’s, although it was a waning but still used phrase in the lexicon. It means that state of ecstasy or profound satisfaction that one gains from a rewarding experience. Churchill deploys it as a song lyric (for this production set to music by Palmer Heffernan) to symbolize the thrills and excitements being experienced by the generation coming to age in the ‘70’s. But based on the Yale Drama School’s production, it’s clear that Churchill’s audacious 30-plus year old work can still get you there as well.