By Bernie Krumm
The Drama and Dance Department had its work cut out for them when they chose to stage “Cloud Nine," a bizarre and complex comedy/drama written by Caryl Churchill. Though flawed, this production is admirable in its ambition.
The first act, set during the Victorian period, revolves around the sexual indiscretions and gender politics of an English family. The major players are Clive, a colonial administrator, his marginalized wife Beth (first played by a man) and their effeminate son Edward (first played by a woman). The play jumps forward a hundred years in the second act to examine the rough sociopolitical climate of 1979 England.
Characters from the first act (including Beth and Edward) reappear in the second, now played by members of the same sex. They have only aged 25 years, implying that despite the progression of society, human beings have only come so far.
While the first act is an uproariously funny satire of Victorian sexual repression and colonialism, the second act is a more dramatic exploration of social mores and sexual taboos. The drastic tonal shift is a bit jarring, and for me proves problematic. In many ways, the two acts are two separate plays that are only loosely connected. The play is also challenging for its actors, as it requires them to play two or more roles that are often perfect contrasts.
The set design for this production, directed by Chris Dippel, is able to accommodate the changes in location between acts but is relatively uninspired. I do understand the constraints of the Black Box Theater and will say that the lighting design makes up for most of what is lacking. Thrown into the production for the second act is live music by punk band Bad Mary. Their angry sound and explicit lyrics reflect the feeling of upheaval that pervaded England in 1979.
Of all of the cast members, Cassandra Demarco proves the most versatile. In the first act, she captures the nervousness of repression as the closeted governess and plays Mrs. Saunders, a freethinking libertine, with humor and bravura. In the second, she is a forceful presence as Lin, a single lesbian mother.
Alan Stentiford’s turn as the chauvinistic, ignorant Clive is brilliant and hilariously absurd. He too shows versatility when he dons a dress and a hair bow to portray Cathy, a precocious tomboy and Lin’s daughter.
Jesse Eberl showcases his abilities as both a comedic and dramatic actor by playing both Clive’s melodramatic wife and the grown up Edward.
Alexis Di Gregorio plays the young Edward with innocence and sadness in the first act and goes on to play the newly liberated Beth with stoicism and humorous naivety.
Some of the actors struggle with their contrasting roles. Sophie Gagnon is both hysterical and provocative as Beth’s sardonic mother, an ingenious character who looks down on women and urges her daughter to learn her place. By comparison, her performance as Victoria, a dissatisfied housewife and the grown up daughter of Clive and Beth, is intriguing but overall conventional.
Tom Meyers, on the other hand, plays Victoria’s cocky husband with precision but only periodically realizes the outlandish nature of Harry Bagley, the pansexual explorer.
Matt Engle shows a mastery of comic timing as Joshua, a black servant who masks his tribal heritage in order to gain acceptance from his white employers. However, there is a sense of sadness in the character that Engle’s performance is unable to completely flesh out.
While it is certainly not perfect, it should be stated that its flaws are a result of its ambition. Despite its shortcomings, it is a well-staged production of a demanding and difficult work.