Review: Cloud 9

Loeb Experimental Theater, July 11-26

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, to put it simply, is all about power and sex. But there’s more than what meets the eye in either of these phenomena—and like all good farces, Cloud 9 stretches, pulls and deconstructs these notions to make us take a second look. In her production at the Loeb Experimental Theater, director Joy B. Fairfield ’03 captures every ounce of the text’s humor, complexity and confrontations with convention, resulting in a challenging and triumphant reading of this play.

The first act takes place in Africa during the Victorian era, as Clive (Daniel A. Cozzens ’03), the British Empire’s steward in the Dark Continent, and his wife Betty (played by male actor Graham A. Sack ’03) try to preserve family, empire and Victorian mores.

The use of space is an important component in Churchill’s play, and Fairfield makes good use of the symbol-laden set, designed by Elizabeth A. Little ’03. The veranda of Clive’s estate takes center stage and sets up a closed-off world. But we see right away that something’s amiss, as the veranda is lopsided and the structure unstable, and the view of the actors is also often obscured by the bars of the veranda, rendering it something of a cage or a prison for the characters.

In fact these characters are not at all what they seem: Betty is in love with strapping family friend Harry Bagley; Clive suffers from a perpetual erection caused and occasionally cured by their live-in guest Mrs. Saunders; their young son Eddy (played by female actor Sasha G. Weiss ’05) wants to be a girl and is also in love with Bagley; their black servant Joshua (played by white actor John Dewis) wants to be white; their nursemaid Ellen (Bonnie-Kathleen Discepolo) wants to be Betty’s lover; and finally, Bagley is himself gay, fools around with Eddy, makes love to Joshua and makes an unsuccessful advance on Clive, who then forces him to marry Ellen.

The plot’s many twists, turns, trysts and entanglements are compounded by the doubling and gender bending in the cast called for by Churchill’s text. Here the cast here is phenomenal—not only in rendering characters of the other gender—but in successfully exploring nearly every dynamic and question posed in the play.

Following Sack’s hands, for example, whether gracefully cupped on his lap or delicately suspended midair, makes us believe it takes only a summer’s worth of rehearsals to be a woman. But to credit of Sack and the rest of the cast, the demands of the play are met brilliantly, from their sheer talent and Fairfield’s own orchestration of the characters’ onstage dynamics. It seems each gesture and expression is accounted for and executed to make these characters as rich and complex as Churchill conceived them. The only visible weakness is in keeping up the British accent, which would otherwise offer another distinctive class marker between characters.

The second act fast forwards a century to contemporary London—though the cast has aged only 25 or so years. The action now takes place in a park—an open, public space that lays the groundwork for the newly defined sexual mores of this new generation, though remnants of the earlier period remain. Here the veranda is deconstructed and pushed to the side, again making for a well-designed and symbolically rich space.

The action begins with two women—the now grown up, “liberated” Victoria (played by Kiran Deol ’05, who was also Betty’s stuffy mother in Act I) and the working class lesbian Lin (Discepolo)—perched on a park bench in what used to be the veranda. Cozzens as Lin’s younger daughter makes for one of the most entertaining and appropriate cast choices, as the six-foot-plus actor has as much absurd physical presence as the rambunctious young girl has energy.

The act is filled with indecision and uncertainty; as the old Victorian and colonial power structures have given way to a sometimes more inscrutable and insidiously constructed sexual dynamics. Victoria is pressured by her husband to empower herself not only by accepting a job, but by enjoying herself sexually with him. Betty has left Clive and now struggles with her independence. Eddy is criticized for wanting to be the woman in his relationship.

But the second act doesn’t continue, but rather plays with, the action of the first half. Fairfield takes this dialogue between past and present and throws it onto the stage in beautifully conceived moments. When the grown Eddy struggles with his aloof partner, for example, onstage flashbacks are brilliantly executed with overlapping dialogue and synchronized movements that seamlessly connect actors into a single, complex unit.

Fairfield’s production uses an alternate version of the play, in which Betty’s monologue on masturbation, taboo and her slow self-discovery ends the production. The choice is well-justified if not simply for the bittersweet and exquisitely rendered moment from Weiss, which in a night of phenomenal performances, is delivered with so much humor, earnestness and humanity that it still shocks us with its simple, deeply genuine feeling.

The show ends after the elder Betty delivers this stunning speech, then rises to embrace her younger, Victorian self. It’s a moment that gives as much possible closure to a show and a situation that has no answers, and a sense of acceptance of the past and potential for some future understanding. It’s a fitting end to a night of superlative performances and sensational moments, which made Fairfield’s Cloud 9 a breakthrough for the audience—and the Harvard stage—alike.

—Crimson Arts theater critic Michelle Chun can be reached at chun2@fas.harvard.edu.