Cloud 9 is a play that opens with a happy, singing family and ends with a pile of shattered assumptions. What happened? They got to know each other.
First produced in 1979, Cloud 9 is a product of liberalism’s heyday. It runs the gamut of sexuality, including gays, lesbians, bisexuals, marriage, cruising, incest and even straight people.
Much like the ’70s themselves, the play wants to offer a utopian vision of the world where people break free of sexual repressions, but it always pulls back, too wise to really believe in utopia.
Playwright Caryl Churchill enjoys cross-casting, as well-black people are played by whites, women by men, children by adults, etc. The effect is dizzying.
Not content to rest until her audience reels with disorientation, Churchill sets act one under the repressions of a colonized Victorian Africa and act two in a supposedly enlightened 1970s England.
And here’s the final catch: While a century has passed, the characters only age 25 years, as though to prove that nothing much has actually changed.
Pak-N-Go Equity Co-op’s production is uneven at times and is delivered with muddled English accents (think of Ryan Phillippe in Gosford Park). But the production is charming, nonetheless, especially when it gives over to the play’s farcical elements.
Then again, a “charming” Caryl Churchill play is something like “nifty” war coverage.
Cloud 9, in the end, is a tragi-comedy. So: we laugh at the fools on stage, then go home and contemplate suicide.
It’s a sensation the English are especially adept at. The BBC’s hit sitcom The Office taught us that comedy comes from pain and the funnier things get, the more painful the root.
A picnic scene in Cloud 9’s first act, for example, has lovers coming and going as madly as any French farce, seemingly focused on trivial matters. Yet amidst the madcap frolic, the child Edward accosts his Uncle Harry: “You know what we did when you were here before? I want to do it again. I think about it all the time. I try to do it to myself but it’s not as good.”
This shocker came off well on opening night, eliciting gasps from the Havana Theatre audience.
Edward becomes far more boring by the second act, but somehow maintains his penchant for taboos (this time he’s in love with his sister).
Like the rest of his family, Edward has grown up and, finding himself surrounded by sexual opportunity, longs for a bygone domesticity. His whiny lust remains intact but the audience’s sympathy has curdled. His “liberation” is a botched job.
Bert Steinmanis, who plays Edward’s modern-day boyfriend, paints the difference between acts this way: “In the first half there’s a lot of people having urges that they’re not allowed to explore. In the second act, the characters can verbalize and act out their desires.”
But most of us have an inkling that acting out one’s desires isn’t all that matters. “By the second act,” notes Steinmanis, “society says you have to deal with things now.”
The repressed desires of Victoriana have bubbled to the surface, but what are we to do with them? Churchill gives us no easy answers.
But her open-ended questions have kept the play vital for 30 years. Unlike gay museum pieces like Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna (1974), Cloud 9 remains vital on stage. It continues to fascinate, now that the shock of orgies and park sex has somewhat dulled, by insisting on the fact of our inherited shames, and the power structures we cannot escape.
Number one on the list of unavoidable power structures: The Mother.
Edward’s mother Betty is at the core of the play’s emotional problem. Whether in the Victorian Age or our own, she struggles to control her children, to maintain the household and, with it, some sense of her self.
But how do we connect with our children, or our parents, in a world that teaches us to keep our true selves hidden?
The second act of Cloud 9 has little patience for Betty’s pretensions of control. Her grown children, meanwhile, are just as blindly committed to the ideals of their own age-sexual freedom, liberalism and saying “fuck” a lot.
Steinmanis feels the second act offers some hope. “At the end, [Betty] makes the choice; she says she’s going to try to change.”
Thirty years after Cloud 9 was written, its 1970s characters could appear as naïve to audiences as its act one Victorians. But director Ian Alexander Martin chooses to update the second half, dressing his cast in contemporary clothing to pull Churchill’s critique of the ’70s into our present.
We’re still tethered by Victorian repressions, he seems to be saying-no matter what affectations of liberation we might adopt.
The New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl recently referred to the hippie qualities of the ’60s and ’70s as “a collective taboo-breaking mania that, in retrospect, makes a pretty good case for taboos.”
Pac-N-Go’s modernized interpretation of Cloud 9 does Schjeldahl one better by asking the right question: Could freedom ever be a failed experiment?
If the war on dear old Mom and Dad (and all those dusty generations down the line) is an impossible struggle, at least we can go down fighting.