Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine could almost be subtitled "The Rise and Fall of the British Empire" if there was a decently bawdy implication to the phrase. The play's two acts are split between two eras and continents. The first takes place in Africa during the Victorian-era British conquest of portions of the continent, and the natives aren't the only ones who are restless. The second act takes place in London a century later, and in the wake of the sexual revolution it's not clear if the rebels are content with their freedom.
The last play in The NOLA Project's busy summer of productions, Cloud Nine is a very well executed finale, which achieves both great humor and some serious exploration of how individuals understand themselves in a world of changing ideologies.
The large stage at NOCCA/Riverfront is put to great use by James Tripp's direction in the first act as we arrive in sub-Saharan Africa and meet a family that's doing its part for Queen and country. As the head of both his household and this outpost of the colony, Clive (Peter McElligott) drives the mission and a briskly paced first act with the thundering pluck and good cheer one could easily mistake for Monty Pythonesque satire. While Clive's energy and booming voice platoons the family, servants and fellow explorers alike, it's the post-colonialism of Joshua that drives home Churchill's point. An African servant to the family, he's embraced the British crown and the mission every bit as enthusiastically as the colonists, gladly renouncing his own kin as "bad people," and betraying other servants who are sympathetic to native resistance.
Clive's frequent appeals to a high sense of spirit as their defining patriotic character provides a hilariously absurd facade for everything else going on inside the characters' heads. Against this outward good cheer, most of them conceal loneliness and other sentiments and personal truths that are considered unmentionable and perhaps even dangerous to the mission. Most are delightfully betrayed for the audience with the slightest change of expression, as from Andrew Larimer's cross-dressed Betty, Clive's wife, and Alex Martinez Wallace's Harry Bagley, an explorer who pursues as many personal conquests around the camp as he does in surrounding jungles.
For better or worse, the colonists generally share the notion that their identities are locked into the institutions they feel helpless to resist, from marriage to loyalty to the empire. They all also seek relief from the brittle social mores in illicit sex, just as the contradictions abounded at the time back home in Britain. Their appetites are as robust as their love of mother England and just about any two characters sharing a brief scene broach the notion of a little intimacy. It becomes a personal refuge from the blind allegiance to the mission. And it's as entertaining as it is revealing.
The second act returns the characters, just 25 years older, to London but a century later, in the 1980s, at about the time Churchill wrote the play. The empire is in retreat and the institution of marriage is starting to look like a penal colony. Here the characters are struggling with the personal conflicts of finding satisfying sex and relationships. It's clearly more of a challenge for the mostly young cast to pull off the dramas of middle-aged and disaffected Londoners, and even the accents are a bit varied. But the play also flirts with very difficult material by trying to portray so many individuals' plights and yet not let them become broadly representational of sexual or gender labels. The play refreshingly doesn't seek easy or ideological answers. And there's still humor, but it comes from their disarming candor.
Alex Martinez Wallace comes across solidly as an academic sort who is weary of bookish explanations of sexual pleasure. McElligott is now a gay man who follows a simple path of seeking engagements that take less than six minutes on a particular train line, though now he sometimes talks just to the audience instead of other characters.
The only really jarring note in the play is James Bartelle's over-sized, cross-dressed child Cathy in the second act. It's hard to figure out what Churchill intended with the character, but the direction seems to have amplified her volume and presence more than necessary. While maybe Cathy provides a ready explanation as to why her single lesbian mother, Laura Ramadei's Lin, seems to have little room for nuance, the character becomes a distraction from the point of the play. The relationships evolving between Lin, Larimer's Edward and Molly Schreiber's Victoria would have been more rewarding subjects for the playwright to have pursued with that time.
Angela Vitale's Betty also doesn't seem to fully benefit from the script until the final scenes when the play bridges some of its uniting ideas about self discovery in a world where minds are colonized in much the same way as continents. All the characters are searching for answers and Betty gets the best crack at putting her finger not so much on an answer but a satisfying explanation of the journey.
Churchill's script is wonderfully rich for its humor and the range given to its characters. The NOLA Project cast does an excellent job of engaging its expeditionary mission.
- Joshua (James Bartelle) reports to Clive (Peter McElligott) about the state of the colony in Cloud Nine.