Monday, September 29, 2008

Cloud 9, Mary Moody Northern Theatre, St. Edwards Unversity, September 25- October 5

You must see this production. It plays only four more times, this coming weekend.

Unless you’re uneasy with frank sexual language.

Unless you get disoriented by anachronism, gender bending and actors morphing character, sex, time and intention.

Unless you are frightened by vulnerability, farce, celebration or intimacy.

Unless you prefer to miss breath taking range and versatility in acting by students and professionals alike.

“Cloud 9,” the title, is a metaphor for sexual ecstasy. UK playwright Caryl Churchill worked with an improvisational theatre group in 1978, then reworked the ideas into this piece, which opened in 1979.

It plays today as fresh as a daisy, because the attractions and confusions of sex do not date.

That, in fact, is one premise of the play.

Act I shows us a group of pukkah sahib Brits somewhere in 1870 in colonial Africa, full of imperial certainties and sexual yearnings blooming in the dangerous dead air of foreign menace. Act II gives us the same seven actors and some of the same characters but played by different members in the cast, transposed to 1979 London. They are searching for love and sexual fulfillment in a post-imperial Britain where freedoms offer greater dangers, more confusions and new opportunities.

Raising the ante, Churchill specifies that certain key roles are to be played by actors of the opposite sex.

Undergrad theatre students at St. Edwards seize this opportunity to show an astonishing range.
Guest artists Babs George and Matt Radford further strengthen the cast.

Ms. George surely should be nominated for a B. Iden Payne award for her performance in a duo and then solo scene at the finale as a fragile older woman belatedly awakening to sexuality.

Oh, for the certainties of Victorian times! Playwright Churchill does a fine job on the neuroses of those bearing the White Man’s Burden.

Jacob Trussell as explorer Harry Bagley (left) and Radford as administrator Clive (right) are blustering and adamant in their Duty beyond the reach of civilization. Behind that façade, though, they are boiling with frustration and passion (and not for one another).

The intimate, claustrophobic circle of society on the frontier includes their family members – Clive’s wife Betty (Christopher Smith,'10, right) and her mother Maud (Babs George, left). Smith is absolutely convincing in his depiction of the delicate Betty, stifled by circumstance, intimidated by the hypocritical, dogmatic Clive, and plaintively wishing for escape with explorer Harry. This is an entrancing performance.

As her mother, Babs George is sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued.

But we, the audience, are certainly not stifled. Act I is a happily wicked, fast-moving farce. Clive frantically pursues a widow brandishing a riding crop; and his wife Betty unwittingly attracts the passionate interest of the family governess (both roles by Helyn Rain Messenger, a graduating senior, played with such panache that I didn’t realize they were done in alternation by the same actress, in the same act).

Son Edward (Sarah Burkhalter, '10) prefers, instead of hunting and playing sport, playing with dolls.

African houseboy Joshua is at Churchill’s specification, played by a white (Jon Wayne Martin, ‘11). Joshua serves impassively amidst this madness, his anger growing as danger brews in the dark beyond the stage.

Act II, set in contemporaneous 1979, is equally fast moving, with the shock of recognizing those same actors in entirely different characters. Language is direct, dramatic, sometimes crude. The same uncertainties and desires are driving, but in the confusion and indulgence of contemporary society they take far different forms.

Take, for instance, the transformation of Smith from repressed colonial housewife to self-confident, cruising homosexual. And that of Martin from trusted servant to his gay lover Edward who would really prefer to be a woman, or maybe, if the opportunity arose, a lesbian.

Babs George hovers in genteel nervousness over the act, seeking to support her confused family – Edward the homosexual, daughter Victoria (Messenger) who is massively frustrated with her husband Martin (Radford) and their impossible daughter Cathy (another wondrous cross-gender performance, by Trussell, '10, formerly macho explorer Harry Bagley).

Sexes blur, sex blurs. In a dark wood there occurs an evocation of dark powers and an almost orgy, an apparition from beyond the grave, and a scandalized spouse. The comedy comes hard and fast, interspersed with scenes of a tenderness and intimacy that give you awe and make you squirm.

All of this builds into an explosion of light, color and music.

Thanks to the administration at St. Ed’s for a lack of prudery and to the theatre staff there for taking on this play. Director David Long keeps his characters smoothly in motion so as to minimize the disadvantages of this vast theatre-in-the-square. The pace of the action is varied and finely tuned.

And this cast offers us a memorable evening, one that reminds us of the wonder and opportunity of passion.

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