The prolific Caryl Churchill has been delivering plays for five decades, often in association with London’s Royal Court Theatre, known particularly as an incubator for writers. An unabashedly political playwright, Churchill is known for her surreal explorations of themes related to feminism and colonialism. Skilled in comedy, she delivers jokes that thrust like knives into the guts of cultural complacency.
This season, the Bay Area is fortunate to have four professional revivals of Churchill plays. In October, A.C.T. offered an excellent version of “Top Girls,” Churchill’s brilliant take on the feminist and not-so-feminist experience of women in the era of Margaret Thatcher. Next week, Shotgun Players will open their production of “Vinegar Tom,” a feminist play set during the English witch trials of the 17th century with the inclusion of modern musical interludes. Then, in the Spring, Magic Theatre will offer Churchill’s more recent one-act (2016), “Escaped Alone,” which is thoroughly contemporary.
And there is the subject of this review, the current superb production of “Cloud 9” at Custom Made Theatre Company.
Attempting to summarize the absurd plot of “Cloud 9” is like trying to walk on fog. There’s something there, alright, but it’s a misty business. The first act is set in Colonial Africa where Clive, a British officer, tries to raise his family in a conventional, protected fashion while dealing with the prospect of a native uprising, about which, for the sake of his family, he must pretend to be unconcerned. This situation of denial is complicated by the fact that the characters are played across genders, and each has their own complicated secrets, mostly sexual, that make of their lives a steaming cauldron of passion and denial, in all matters of power and sexuality. This being a play by Caryl Churchill, these complications are played for big laughs, without losing any of their power to disturb. Clive’s ridiculous and hypocritical pomposity is a comic joy to watch in the more-than-capable hands of Evan Winet, making his debut performance at Custom Made Theater Company. This actor is extraordinary, popping off emotions like a runaway rocket, shedding light and nonsense in every direction. Although Clive is utterly ridiculous, Winet manages to invest him with an authentically caring if confused core, a man of genuine passions and affections, values and concerns. This authentic core of caring, which extends to all the characters, serves to ground the absurdities and reveal the deeper aspects of Churchill’s play. No matter how ridiculous things become, director Allie Moss and her excellent ensemble never lose respect for the characters’ hopes and dreams.
Although Winet offers the most memorable performance, the rest of the company, many of them cast across genders, do not slouch. As Betty, Clive’s conventional wife, who seethes with a secret passion for sexy (but secretly gay) explorer Harry (played exuberantly by Zaya Kolia), Mario Mazetti is a prodigy of physical comedy, but still moving by virtue of Betty’s desperate neediness.
Assorted other characters include a gay son Edward (Alejandra Wahl) who, like his mother, is obsessed with Harry, as well as a lesbian nurse, Ellen (Renee Rogoff), and a memorable infant played by a rag doll named Victoria (veiled allusion alert).
In the second act, many of the characters reappear, twenty-five years older, although living one hundred years after the events of the first act. Also, the actors are shuffled with different actors playing different characters the second time around. By bringing her characters into the 20th century, Churchill draws out the connections between the mystique of colonialism and Victorian gender roles (with their “Cloud 9” lack of reality imagined as an ideal) and contemporary experience.
Heather Kenyon’s versatile scenery helps us to follow the action, and Candice Liao’s costumes hit just the right whimsical note. Everett Elton Bradman’s sound design is appropriately unobtrusive, as is the effective lighting design of Emma Satchell.
If all this sounds hopelessly muddled, don’t worry. If you go to see this quite lively production you will most likely think, laugh, and enthusiastically applaud. What more do you want?
“Cloud 9” continues at Custommade Theatre through December 15th. For further information, click here.
Rating: ****1/2 (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Cloud 9” by Cary Churchill. Produced by Custom Made Theatre Company. Director: Allie Moss. Scenic Designer: Heather Kenyon. Costume Designer: Candice Liao. Lighting Designer: Emma Satchell.. Sound Designer: Everett Elton Bradman.
Clive/Cathy/Soldier: Evan Winet. Betty/Edward: Mario Mazzetti. Edward/Vic: Alejandra Wahl. Joshua/Gerry: Alan Coyne. Ellen/Mrs. Saunders/Lin: Renee Rogoff. Maud/Betty: Monica Cappuccini. Harry/Martin: Zaya Kolia.