We know who Clive (John Scherer) is: square-jawed, middle-aged, sandy-haired with a splash of white at the temples, refined of voice, of imperial bearing — why, he is the very model of the English colonial baron, ensconced in 19th-century Africa to carry, in Kipling’s terms, the white man’s burden. It is his job, as he understands it, to look after the natives, the aboriginals, the primitives. He does not like it much, but he recognizes it as his duty, and despite the danger (about which he never tells the women and children) he will carry on.
But who are these other people? Why is his wife Betty being played by a man (the very fine Wyatt Fenner)? Why is her English mother played by an African-American (Joy Jones)? Why is his African serving-man, Joshua, being played by a light-skinned man (Phillipe Bowgen)? Why is his son Edward — who admittedly has some sexual identity issues — being played by a woman (Laura C. Harris)? And why is his daughter Victoria, named after Her Majesty, being played by a big woolly doll?
The unconventional casting, of course, is not an invention of Director Michael Kahn and his artistic team but an essential part of Caryl Churchill’s script. When the play debuted in 1979 this boldness had a colossal impact. Since then other artists have had their way with the technique and today it is a little less startling, but it still packs a wallop. To see a role played by an actor of an unexpected gender, or an unexpected race, or an unexpected age, is to once universalize the experience and to knock it free of our convention-formed expectations. A character in Kathleen Akerley’s superb FEAR confesses that he was never repelled by Hamlet’s contemptuous assault on Gertrude until he saw Gertrude played by a man. It is much the same here.
Because it is set in a British colony in some unnamed African country, we could view the first Act as a comment on colonialism, but to do so would miss more important material. Colonialism is a slippery slope which begins with an offer of medicine and an attempt to convince the indigenous people that a wife should not throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre; when we meet Clive, he is pretty far down that mountain. But Churchill is after bigger game than 19th-century British foreign policy. Before the British could colonize other countries, they had to colonize themselves, and it is the consequence of that self-imposed self-discipline that makes up the first hour thirty minutes’ traffic on our stage.
That Act is structured as a conventional potboiler, with consequences no potboiler could have anticipated. Betty, alternately bored by her life and terrified by the fierce indigenous people around her, imagines herself to be in love with Harry Bagley (Christian Pedersen), an explorer, a poet, and a gay man. In the meantime, Clive throws himself after Mrs. Saunders (Holly Twyford), who is unenthusiastic but compliant, and the governess Ellen (also Holly Twyford) confesses to Betty that she loves her. Betty, like the Queen herself, refuses to admit that the possibility of sexual love between women could exist, and cluelessly assures Ellen that she loves her, too.
Every relationship, and every act within every relationship, is dictated by the bindings of duty. Characters remind each other that life is not to be enjoyed, but to be performed within the dictates of duty. For Betty’s fantasized infidelity, Clive ends his man-and-wife relationship with her, although they remain married. Edward’s nascent sexuality is stuffed back into the closet; he is warned never to play with dolls or talk of them, but instead to prepare himself for cricket. When Clive learns of Harry’s sexuality he is outraged — it is far more offensive than the moves he put on Clive’s wife — and he compels him to marry the bewildered Ellen. When Ellen asks Betty what she should do on her wedding night, Betty advises her to just lie still — which might be the compulsion visited upon all the characters, even Clive, by the society in which they live.
Fast-forward a hundred years. (The program says that “for the characters it is twenty-five years later,” but I did not find that to be a useful way to look at the play.) Edward (Scherer) is a gay man seeking long-standing domestic bliss; his partner Jerry (Fenner) is a playa. They are in the process of breaking up. His sister Victoria (Harris) is debating whether to accept a job offer in Manchester and maintaining a long-distance relationship with her husband Martin (Pedersen), and also starting to fall in love with Lin (Jones), a lesbian with an obstreperous daughter (Bowgen). Their mother Betty (Twyford), with whom they have had a sketchy relationship, gives them the startling news that she has left their father and is going back to work.
It is hard to imagine a more complete liberation from the bonds of duty, or of sexual convention. Betty, swallowing hard, accepts her children’s sexual identities. Martin encourages Victoria’s relationship with Lin, perhaps to give room for his own sexual adventures. There is a most unlikely ménage á trois. There is an orgy in the park.
They are freer, but are they happier? They argue about the kids; they worry about being good parents; the job in Manchester remains unresolved. They experience loneliness, they share doubts, they rehash old decisions. They are visited by ghosts — some from the first Act, and some from the recent past.
closes October 16, 2016
Details and tickets
If this were a Neil Simon play, everything would be resolved by the final curtain, possibly with a brief psychoanalysis to explain the actions of some of the less noble characters. But there is nothing false or inauthentic about this play; it baldly admits that happiness — Cloud 9 — is elusive, and not obtained by simply repudiating the past. When Clive returns at the end of the second Act and says “I used to be proud to be an Englishman” you get a real sense of the loss of dignity and responsibility.
None of this insight would be possible, though, without the superb, sensitive, intelligent, and wholly authentic production Kahn and Studio Theatre gives this great play. Within a few moments, the unconventional casting lays itself aside; Fenner is really Betty, a woman who doubts her own adequacy as she strives to do her duty by pleasing her husband. Harris is a twelve-year-old boy who cannot tear himself from his dolls, who loves and hates and fears his father, and above all does not wish to become him. Jones becomes the most pallid of English dowagers, radiating a haughty contempt for all things African. And so on.
When they move from aAct One to Act Two they become fully different creatures (Twyford plays three characters, entirely distinct from each other) and they do so beautifully. Under these circumstances it is useless to try to credit individual actors, but I will say that it has been a privilege to observe Harris in Washington theater over ten years and see her acquire this extraordinary skill; that Jones is radiant; and that I hope we see more of the gifted Bowgen in years to come.
Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill . Directed by Michael Kahn, assisted by Victoria Gruenberg . Featuring Philippe Bowgen, Wyatt Fenner, Laura C. Harris, Joy Jones, Christian Pedersen, John Scherer, and Holly Twyford . Set designer: Luciana Stecconi . Costume designer: Frank Labovitz . Lighting designer: Peter West . Sound designer: Christopher Baine . Fight Director: Jonathan Ezra Rubin . Stage manager: Anthony O. Bullock, assisted by Lauren Pekel . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor