One of the most challenging and uproarious satires of the past few seasons, Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, recently sidled into the cozy Black Box Theater at Robinson Hall for an 11-day run that ended last Saturday. UNC Charlotte students, faculty, and visitors alike found themselves in a euphoric tizzy of laughter and confusion as this mixed-breed time-traveling script played itself out under the direction of UNCC lecturer Kelly Mizell-Ryan.
The mixture might be described as the polemical thrust of Bertolt Brecht filtered through the sensibility of James Barrie with, here and there, light sprinkles of Gilbert & Sullivan — plus a few snarky, perverse twists that are all Churchill’s own. It was a little much for the director, the student cast, and the audience to handle, but I think we all had fun.
We began in colonial Africa in 1879, a century before the British-born playwright’s script was first performed, with no attempt at realism by set designer Daniel Fleming or, indeed, by Churchill. On the contrary, Clive the colonialist’s black servant was played by a white actor at the insistence of the playwright. Likewise, his wife Betty was played by a man, his son Edward by a woman, and both his paramour and his son’s governess by the same actress. Most absurd — and obscure — of all, Edward’s sister Victoria was a lifeless, flesh-colored ragdoll with no features whatsoever.
All of the racial and gender switches reflect the characters’ aspiration to fulfill Clive’s alpha military male expectations — except in Edward’s case, where the lad’s failed masculinity is the point. Upstanding as they all are, the proper Britishers hardly hesitate to misbehave as the wily servant Joshua lurks in the background. While Clive attempts to seduce Mrs. Saunders, Betty is being wooed by Clive’s best friend Harry. It’s a carnival of lust and pretentiousness, very much in tune with Fleming’s scenic concept.
Complete disclosure in the UNCC playbill would have moderately aided navigation in the opening act. Without it, we were pretty much floundering at sea after intermission. I actually had to consult my playscript back home to discover that Victoria wasn’t merely a doll that the unmanly Edward was playing with. And although the names of three characters carry over into Act 2, it seemed impossible that Edward, Victoria, and Betty were the selfsame people in 1979 London, especially since they were now being played by different actors — or, more precisely in Victoria’s case, by a human being.
The impossible is made possible by the notice Churchill serves us in her text: while time has marched forward a full century between the two acts, Betty and her children have only aged 25 years. Knowing that would have alleviated a lot of bafflement — and enhanced our appreciation — as Act 2 unfolded.
One thing accomplished by Churchill’s musical-chairs switches in casting was getting us to concentrate on who had changed into whom — Paula Garofalo’s costumes vividly depicted the gulfs between the centuries and the genders — and ponder what was being illustrated by the contrasts we were seeing as we jump-cut from 1879 to 1979. While we were processing all this, Churchill eased off on the broad vaudeville and rampant cross-dressing we witnessed in the early going. That certainly didn’t make things easier. Nor were the same twisted casting rules in effect anymore. The one cross-dressing role was the obstreperous 5-year-old Cathy, played by Joe Antosyzk, who had been the center of the universe as Clive in Act 1.
Largely employed as comic relief until she goes missing, uniting the 1979 adults in their concern, Antosyzk’s role wasn’t quite as juicy when he switched genders, but overall he still shone brightest as the pertinent action swirled around Cathy in the denouement. Cathy’s mother, Lin, actively pursues Elizabeth throughout the London action, but Liz isn’t quite ready to come out as a lesbian. On the other hand, Victoria’s husband, Gerry, was afraid to come out as a homosexual while our dear Edward — remember him/her? — somehow remained devoted to this slimeball. Switching from Betty to Edward at intermission, Tyler Waddell was a nightlong feast of effeminacy.
Cloud 9 certainly reaffirmed the stature of the UNCC Theatre Department program and the current crop of theatre majors performing in their productions. As we veered into the cloudier Act 2, I never got the idea that Justin Schwartz, Hannah Hammond, Audrey Hudson, Jennifer Ganan, or Doug Savitt had a clue about what Churchill’s thrust really was. But like Waddell and Antosyzk, they were all vibrantly and convincingly in the moment.
Students who may have been assigned the challenge of critiquing and explicating what they had witnessed probably weren’t on cloud nine as they exited the Black Box. I can only hope they were able to catch a glimpse at Churchill’s fleshed-out dramatis personae and her lengthy “Author’s Note” before handing in their papers. I’m glad I did.