Review: Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill. Produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop. Directed by Nick Garrison. With Ian Bell, James Cowan, Basil Harris, Gretchen Krich, Imogen Love, Sarah Rudinoff, Scott Shoemaker. At the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway now through August 6.
I’ve been talking up Strawshop’s current production of Caryl Churchill’s 1979 farce Cloud Nine for MONTHS. Primarily because I love the play; I saw a production of it circa 1983 in Minneapolis at Theatre de la Jeune Lune (may it rest in peace) and instantly was smitten with the bawdy charms of Ms Churchill’s gender/sexuality/race bending politically comedic satire of colonialism and sexual politics. It’s the rare piece of art that manages to be alternately hilarious and dramatic yet never feels contrived as it explores more sexual and societal taboos than a season of South Park. I’ve obviously read the play and I’ve seen a more recent production at The Balagan a few years back, and while that production had its flaws (to be fair to the Balagan, it was their first production in a new, raw, unfinished space) I still felt the play held up, and continued to warrant its earlier acclaim.
And, the announcement last year that Strawberry Theatre Workshop was mounting a production with an all-star Seattle cast led by Ian Bell, Sarah Rudinoff and Imogen Love with direction by another Seattle theater superstar, actor Nick Garrison, was received with considerable amounts of glee for many Seattle theater fans. The cast, the director, the theater and the play itself…all the stars seemed to be in alignment for a “must see” night of queer theater. The assumption was, Cloud Nine was a “sure thing”.
But, is there really such a thing as a “sure thing”? And, we all know what they say about assuming…someone always ends up as the rear end of a donkey. Cloud Nine is still a great piece of theatrical writing, despite its age, and the fact it’s not nearly as shocking as it was 30+ years ago. Gender bending queer characters pop up everywhere nowadays, or at least with a great deal more frequency than in 1980 in the pre-Boy George era. The play is still relevant and fascinating and moving and funny.
Or, at least it should be. Cloud Nine is a two act play with seven performers. Act One takes place in Victorian Colonial Africa and focuses on Clive and Betty, a colonial administrator and his wife and their household consisting of two children, a mother-in-law, a visiting neighbor woman, a visiting male friend of the family, a governess and an African servant. Per the playwright’s instructions, Betty is played by a man; Edward the son is played by a woman, and Joshua the black servant is played by a white actor. The tone of Act One is stylized, clipped, Wildean farce. There are dark tones and deep meanings behind the ridiculous situations but the overall effect is comedic. Clive is the stereotypical stiff upper lip British bully; Betty is the frail, beautiful, tormented heroine; the mother-in-law is the starchy, dry Grande Dame; etc. It is not realistic; it’s surrealistic. It’s supposed to be…funny. My experience at Theatre de la Jeune Lune was VERY funny; my reading of the text was funny; even the underdone Balagan production was quite funny. Strawshop’s Act One of Cloud Nine: not very funny. A bit dour at times, in fact.
What’s the problem? Funny, funny cast, half of whom come from Re-bar’s Brown Derby Players, beloved for their skewings of popular films. A very astute comedic actor as the director. Every person involved in this production is ridiculously smart and talented. Why does Act One of Cloud Nine fail to be funny?
Despite the excellent calibre of the cast, not everyone in Cloud Nine is well cast. Ian Bell as Clive and Imogen Love as the mother-in-law Maud are both perfectly cast and they both obviously have thoroughly read the text and interpreted it to perform their roles with the correct tone of the piece. Both actors give arch, richly defined comedic performances. Basil Harris also does a fine job as the visiting “friend of the family” Harry, walking the fine line between comedy and pathos as the sexually and morally conflicted pukka sahib.
But, we run into trouble with the other characters/performances, all of them “stunt” roles involving cross-casting of race, gender or age. Sarah Rudinoff might just be the funniest female comedic performer in Seattle but she’s not well cast as Edward. Her style is a little too broad for the role, and frankly she’s a little too lushly female. The same goes for James Cowan as Betty, but in reverse. Betty is supposed to be a frail, ultra feminine woman and the actor is not conventionally pretty enough to play “pretty” and demure. His Betty is morose and depressed, more Camille than Lady Bracknell. (Director Nick Garrison was originally cast in this role and would have made the perfect Betty.) The gender bending casting required for Cloud Nine works best (in my opinion) with fairly gender neutral actors; in other words, actors with some ambiguity. The curvy Ms Rudinoff is very obviously a female and the not at all feminine looking Mr. Cowan never convince us they are the characters they are supposed to be. And, I’m not saying the play requires reality, but it does require a certain tone and ambiguity. Neither actor has that physical ambiguity and I think the casting hurts the comedy and intent of the play.
I think Scott Shoemaker as the black servant Joshua was well cast, but I don’t think he was well directed. Mr. Shoemaker, arguably the palest actor in Seattle, has the comedic chops to play this role but appears to have been directed to play the part very seriously. The role certainly has serious and dramatic overtones, but Joshua is also supposed to get a lot of laughs. For the most part, this characterization seems to have wandered over from an Eugene O’Neill play; he’s morose and depressing.
There are a number of other things that hinder Act One. In our interview with Mr. Garrison prior to the opening, he revealed they had added quite a lot of musical moments to the production, material not specified in the script. The problem is, they’ve gone overboard with these added musical bits, scattering half a dozen of them or more, throughout the play. One or two of them work fine, but the majority of these bits add little to the play except running time…this production runs a sluggish 2 and a half hours.
And, the most indicative flaw of Act One is exemplified by a prop…a doll. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but a doll is a major plot device of Act One of Cloud Nine and in both previous productions I’ve seen, the doll got BIG laughs. Huge ones. Belly rippers. The doll in this production lays an egg…I saw this show opening night and I thing the doll got a slight chortle once. Part of the problem is the doll itself…The production team went with a scary, faux porcelain Victorian thing with an unfinished jagged head, that terrifies instead of delights. In previous productions, the doll is comedic looking, and Raggedy Ann-ish…floppy, and ridiculous, and surreal. The doll, like the Act itself, is disjointed, confused and brittle and fails its mission…it’s just not funny.
I did not care for Act One of Cloud Nine and was horribly disappointed and depressed by that fact and sort of dreaded returning to the theater for Act Two. But, the clouds lifted and the miraculous happened and Act Two strongly helped redeem the challenges of the first act. Part of that can be attributed to the script itself. Act Two of Cloud Nine concerns many of the same core characters of Act One, but while 100 years have passed; we’re now in London circa 1979; the characters have only aged 25 years…and, they’re played by different actors. Betty is now about 60 and played by a woman. Edward, the son, is 35ish and played by the actor who played Betty in Act One. Several new characters are introduced and the only gender bending concerns the casting of a 5 year old girl; it’s always played by a male actor, and in this case it’s Ian Bell, who played the stern father in Act One.
And, Act Two of Strawshop’s Cloud Nine is a success. It helps that the tone of Act Two is considerably different than Act One…it’s mostly very naturalistic and straightforward. It’s not arch, stylized comedy; it’s gritty urban surrealism. It’s frequently funny, but not really meant to be as funny as Act One… the tone is completely different. Victorian morality has been replaced by Thatcherite totality and while white men were in charge in Act One, they’ve been displaced by women, gay men and lesbians. It’s a whole new world, and there’s not as much room in it for white, heterosexual males.
The cast and the director both seem more comfortable with the material in the second act with sharper performances and characterizations and every actor is well cast for their roles with the biggest standout being Imogen Love as Lin, the lesbian lover to Betty’s daughter Victoria, who commands the stage as the lower class, fiercely proud single mom. Ms Love gave the best female performance in Act One, as the tart mother in law, and she manages to top herself with her work in Act Two playing a character 180 degrees away from the Victorian matron. You wish the whole play was just about these two characters.
Ian Bell is appropriately ridiculous as a bratty five year old girl. Sarah Rudinoff is excellent as the slightly snobby but loving Victoria, eager to explore her sexuality. Basil Harris shines as her milquetoast husband, and Gretchen Krich gives a charming and subtle performance as a wistful and lonely Betty, tentatively exploring a world without the assistance of a man to guide her. Mr. Cowan as the adult Edward and Mr. Shoemaker as his reluctant lover give compelling and complex portrayals of two very different gay men. All the actors do exemplary work in Act Two and offer more than enough reason to stick around after Act One.
So. I’m not sure what to tell you. I very much liked the second half of Cloud Nine (if I gave grades, it would get a solid A-) and I didn’t much care for Act One because it didn’t reach its potential and frankly, lost its way, though it does have its charms (It would get a C-). I still think this production is worth checking out, but I think you need to know it might not live up to all your expectations. Frankly, I hated writing this review because I respect and like every artist involved in it a great deal, and I desperately wanted this to be a “Dream Team” production and it didn’t deliver that. I’ll take partial responsibility for that, though. Sometimes we just expect more than what possibly can be delivered.
Or, it might just boil down to that damn creepy doll.