Decades before playwright Caryl Churchill in her dotage earned a notorious reputation as arguably the most virulent anti-Semite active in mainstream British theater, her plays, despite the heavy baggage of Marxist Brechtian dialectical conventions, were plausibly entertaining. Indeed, like “Saturday Night Live,” her best and funniest work was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Cloud 9 was her first successful play from that era.
Cloud 9 is formally both a surrealist play, with actors deliberately portraying characters inconsistent with their real life attributes, and a polemical play, with characters struggling to break out of the traps of their socially-imposed circumstances. The Contemporary Theater Company does strive to perform experimental and non-traditional works, and they do a good job with what is neither fully absurdist nor naturalistic. The essence of Brechtianism is to keep reminding the audience that they are watching an artificial construction called a play, actively trying to prevent the suspension of disbelief. Each act begins with all of the actors (and one inanimate doll) holding title cards that identify their characters, and the casting of actors inconsistent with their characters is an essential part of that Brechtian pretension.
Throughout the performance, musician Matthew Requintina and singer Meg Perry use songs chosen to comment on the situation, occasionally joined by the cast.
The first act is set in a remote African colony of the British Empire during the Victorian 1880s, clearly suggestive of South Africa although not actually identified, amidst the so-called “Scramble for Africa.” Clive (“a man played by a man,” Birk Wozniak) is the head of the household, Betty (“a woman played by a man,” Andrew Katzman) is his seemingly proper wife, Edward (“a little boy played by a woman,” Amy Lee Connell) is their son, Harry Bagley (“a man played by a man,” Sami Avigdor) is a visiting explorer modeled after Henry Morton Stanley, Joshua (“a black man played by a white woman,” Ashley Macamaux) is the household servant, Maud (“a white woman played by a black woman,” Tammy Brown) is Betty’s mother, Ellen (“a woman played by a woman,” Stephanie Traversa) is Edward’s governess, Mrs Saunders (“a woman played by a woman,” also Stephanie Traversa) is a widow seeking refuge during an uprising of natives, and Victoria (“a little girl played by a doll”) is Edward’s infant sister.
Clive, the paragon of upstanding Victorian values, is secretly shtupping Mrs. Saunders. Betty and Harry are caught in an unconsummated love affair, although Harry is sexually involved with both the female Mrs. Saunders and the male Joshua. Harry is also molesting young Edward who strangely finds the experience aligned with his own emerging orientation, a concept probably less jarring to an audience in 1979 than today. Ellen is in unrequited love with Betty, her employer.
Although uniformly well-played, and some of the cast – notably Wozniak, Connell, and Avigdor – are outstanding, the exposition of widespread and universal hypocrisy is a theme that cannot support being beaten like a dead horse. The farcical aspects are funny in a Benny Hill sort of way, but beyond that the first act serves primarily as a set-up for the next.
The second act is set in a London park during the Thatcher era, but for the characters only 25 years have passed. Actors from the first act swap into other roles for the second, but director Ryan Hartigan chose to reallocate those swaps in his own way, explaining in his director’s note in the program book, “Every production … has used the same doublings of characters, but Churchill herself said that any doubling would reveal interesting things. We’re the CTC. We took her at her word.” Victoria (“a white woman played by a black woman,” Tammy Brown) is grown up and married to Martin (“a man played by a man,” Birk Wozniak), and they have a daughter Cathy (“a little girl played by a man,” Sami Avigdor). Her mother Betty (“a woman played by a woman,” Stephanie Traversa) has separated from her husband (presumably Clive). Edward (“a gay man played by a man,” Andrew Katzman) has formed a relationship with Gerry (“a gay man played by a woman,” Ashley Macamaux). Lin (“a gay woman played by a woman,” Amy Lee Connell) is the mother of Tommy, who is never seen.
The daisy chain of sexual relationships grows complicated: Martin loses Victoria to Lin, who is involved with Edward, who is involved with Gerry, whom Betty tries unsuccessfully to pick up in the park. It is suggested that Lin is engaged in a ménage à trois with the siblings Victoria and Edward. Characters break the fourth wall and a number of characters from the first act reappear for brief vignettes in the second act. Victoria, played by a doll in the first act and named after the queen in the first act, in the second act says she now worships “the goddess of cunts.”
The choice of character doublings by the actors from the first to the second act is to a great extent the essential defining aspect of any production of this play, and here they are thought-provoking but troubling. Avigdor’s transition from Harry Bagley to Cathy is arguably the converse of Connell’s from Edward to Lin, worldliness to innocence and vice versa. Exactly what these doublings are intended to convey is left very much uncertain, although that is the point.
In the end, a challenging play for the performers becomes a bit of a muddle for the audience.
Cloud 9, Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main Street, Wakefield. contemporarytheatercompany.com/cloud-nine/, fully handicap accessible.
Thu (4/10, 5/1) pay what you can, Fri (4/4, 4/11, 4/25, 5/2) $20, Sat (4/5, 4/12, 4/26, 5/3) $20, Sun (4/27) $15, all 7pm. About 3 hours including intermission. Includes mature content, including subject matter and language, not appropriate for anyone under 17.
Tickets: contemporarytheatercompany.com/box-office or 410-218-0282
Facebook event: facebook.com/events/212013068996788/