A Heaven and Haven on “Cloud 9”

Pattys-photos/ Flickr

Pattys-photos/ Flickr

Jackson Cooper
    Staff Writer

There is a certain mystique about British folk that draws Americans to it. For many, the accents alone can make you swoon for days. But in Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9,” which played at Triad Stage’s UpStage Cabaret last weekend, mystique between cultures is erased as Churchill tells us that the one thing that unites countries divided by waters is sex.

Told in two parts, the first in 1880 Africa and the second in 1980 London, “Cloud 9” is an existential romp through the caverns of the human heart. In 1880 Africa, we follow an archetypal British family whose patriarch (the always deliciously good Lee Wilson) has moved his wife (Zach Phrimmer), mother and children (Lizzie Wouters, Gabby Hammond) and governess (Elise Kimple) to for reasons that never are fully clear. The spirit of London and dedication to the Queen hangs over this family which keeps the sexual suppression even more frustrating for them. They can’t ever fully blossom because of their place in society or the manners they must hold in the company of visitors. You never see these characters behave rashly even when faced with the most primal of feelings for one another.

Modern sensibilities of sex are discussed by these characters though it is the blatant obliviousness to their intelligence on the subjects that makes the first act so funny—and enlightening. They make so much sense of their desires for one another but for the simple fact that British customs do not allow for flamboyant gestures of sex, they are left to being endlessly repressed and frustrated.

It is in this where moments of unexpected lust are comedic and often tragic. Take for instance a rather touching moment when the family’s uncle Harry Bagley (a breakout role by TJ Broadhurst) bonds with Clive (Lee Wilson) over their dedication to the Queen. The conversation becomes passionate until Bagley kisses Clive—is this because he loves Clive or is swept up in the men’s shared love of something that he can’t help but kiss him?

This is where director Katie Chidester and her cast propel the production to professional quality. Questions like this arise and we aren’t given many answers. Chidester keeps us guessing about certain moments that flit and fly past us like the trail of a gorgeous hoop skirt at a grand ball.

Come act two, the characters are in a modern landscape: London, 1980, where sexuality is more open and freeing — or so it may seem.

Where Churchill’s script, among my favorite theatre works of the past century, is genius is that it does not show us a “happy ending” to romantic feelings. Even though society has progressed a century later, people are still trapped by their own desires. Maybe we may never be free.

Though these dark observations lie beneath the surface of the text, “Cloud 9” is a stimulating, enjoyable evening of theatre. Chidester and her cast delivered a fine, well-received production that utilized Triad Stage’s UpStage Cabaret to its fullest potential.

All cast members gave equally solid performances, many doubling and playing the opposite sex (intentional by Churchill’s request). The doubling of actors such as Phrimmer as a wife in Act 1 and a troubled gardener in Act 2 is a well-thought out choice by Churchill. We see that the two characters are related in their wants and needs of connection and place in the world. Phrimmer’s gardener in Act 2 at one point says, “I often wish I were a woman, to have curves and breasts, just so I can feel normal.” These characters exist in both worlds but Churchill questions whether we are more related to people of the past—a form of foreigners to some—than each other. It is the past we have to recollect when we are faced with questions of the present such as who we are and where do we go from here. We assume that everyone knows what we want out of life, when, in retrospect, we may not even know entirely well because the head doesn’t really know what the heart is feeling sometimes. This production has both head and heart and both can be felt long after you lay in bed, hearing your thoughts and feeling your heartbeat.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Visual & Performance

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