Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 1, $20-$65
Caryl Churchill skewers British colonialism, patriarchy, and sexual oppression and obsession while examining intricate issues of gender identity and personal freedom in Cloud Nine, her 1979 play being wonderfully revived at the Atlantic. The first act, in which several characters are played by members of the opposite gender, takes place in the late nineteenth century, in an unnamed African nation where the natives are growing more than a little restless, the threat of revolt against their occupiers in the air. Set designer Dane Laffrey (the new Spring Awakening and Fool for Love revivals) has transformed the space into a theater-in-the-round, with several rows of uncomfortable steep wooden bleachers circling the center stage area. (A limited amount of cushions are available, or you can bring your own.) The play opens with Union Jack-waving British administrator Clive (Clarke Thorell) leading his family in a song praising jolly old England, during which he introduces his oddball clan in rhyme. He is married to Betty (Chris Perfetti, in a spectacular off-white gown, courtesy of costume designer Gabriel Berry), a shy, reserved woman who explains, “I live for Clive. The whole aim of my life / Is to be what he looks for in a wife. / I am a man’s creation as you see, / And what men want is what I want to be.” Their son, Edward (Brooke Bloom), prefers playing with dolls to playing catch, while the aptly named baby, Victoria, is an actual doll that the characters toss around. The children are cared for by Ellen (Izzie Steele), the young governess who is extremely dedicated to Betty. Betty’s mother, Maud (Lucy Owen), is a stern woman who thinks that her daughter has married beneath her. And their servant, Joshua (Sean Dugan, a white man playing a black man), goes about his duties with a blank, deadpan look that is fraught with impending danger; “My skin is black but oh my soul is white. / I hate my tribe. My master is my light. / I only live for him. As you can see, / What white men want is what I want to be,” he says without conviction. The family is visited by intrepid explorer and adventurer Harry Bagley (John Sanders), who apparently has never met a person, man or woman, adult or child, he doesn’t want to have sex with, and the widowed Mrs. Saunders (Steele), an independent, plucky sort. The first act plays out like a twisted comedy of manners with a Monty Python edge as most of the characters reveal their hidden sexual desires while arguing over what is proper in society. It’s both funny and poignant, wacky and incisive, but Churchill turns everything around marvelously in the second act.
Following intermission, the play moves to a London park in 1979, the red gravel of Africa replaced by fake green grass. A century might have passed, but the characters have aged a mere twenty-five years. The full cast and most of the characters are back, but they’re played by different actors; Churchill leaves this doubling up to each new production, and her longtime director, James MacDonald (Love and Information, Cock), recasts the second act ingeniously, adding multiple layers to the already complex story. Bloom (You Got Older), who played the effeminate Edward in the first act, is now playing his mother, Betty, a stronger, more determined woman who is considering a life on her own. Owen (The Village Bike), who was the serious, suspicious Maud, now plays her granddaughter, Victoria, formerly a doll, now a modern woman who is thinking about leaving her husband for Lin, a lesbian played by Steele (What I Did Last Summer), who, as Ellen in the first act, declared her love for Betty. Thorell (Annie, Hairspray), previously Clive, the staunch defender of Mother England, is now Lin’s baby daughter, Cathy, prancing around in pigtails and smearing himself in paint, as if Great Britain has not yet grown up, making the same mess as always. Sanders (Peter and the Starcatcher), who was the brave Harry, has become Martin, Victoria’s very practical husband who simperingly supports anything she wants to do. And Edward, now played by Perfetti (Sons of the Prophet), who was Betty in the first act, has come out of the closet, a park worker in love with the gruff Gerry, portrayed by Dugan (Next Fall). Got all that? It makes for a whole lot of curious, surprising, and at times mind-blowing pairings (Freud would have a field day with the shenanigans) if you really delve into what’s happening between the actors and the characters. The latter have been thrust into an era that has witnessed the civil rights and women’s liberation movements and free love, and they’re ready to move on with their lives, determining their own places in the world rather than being limited by societal norms and what is expected, or demanded, of them. They still have their secrets and are haunted by ghosts, and there’s plenty of difficult work ahead for them, but there’s no need to play hide-and-seek again, as they did in the first act. Even when the story turns extremely serious and you, and many others, are shifting around in your cramped seat, you will have a blast trying to follow who is who, and who was who, and what it all says about the state of our world, then and now.