While speaking to director Alisa Palmer about her latest theatrical venture, the Mirvish production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, one cannot help but think of some of the more scandalous lines from the formative feminist comedy. When Clive says to Betty in Act One, “We must resist this dark female lust, Betty, or it will swallow us up,” it’s just the tip of the sexually repressed iceberg.
As part of a self-described “old-fashioned lesbian couple,” Palmer is delighted to be directing her wife, acclaimed novelist, actress and playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald, in the role of Betty in Act Two. Betty, however, true to Churchill’s innovative and titillating form of dramaturgy, is played by a man in the first act. Evan Buliung, as the drag version of this complex and fabulous character, will have his hands — and presumably his chest — full as he takes on one of the many cross-casting challenges that the play presents.
Palmer, settled into a 12-year relationship with MacDonald — with two children — reveals a refreshing take on feminism, queerness and theatre as she describes her approach to directing this classic 1978 comic romp, replete with white men playing black men who are in denial about their skin colour, men playing women who played men in one act, and women playing men who played women in another act. Sound confusing? Not in the least. Given Palmer’s progressive approach, Cloud 9 promises to be a sexy and hilarious satire of colonialist values that possesses relevant and timely issues for contemporary audiences.
Palmer’s politics are always apparent in the staging of her shows, but they never overwhelm. She finds ways to discover the sexual energy in every facet, from set and costume to character nuance and gesture. Her fully integrated approach has been seen at the Shaw festival in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s queerish Belle Moral (2005) and last summer’s Sunday in the Park with George.
Palmer’s subtle and effective way of inserting sexual energy into the overall vision gives material substance to her claim that it is, in fact, “a queerer gesture to actually embrace the notion of equality” in the theatre.
“I don’t know how unique I am to this but one of my goals in my art is to make theatre sexy. I talk about trying to do 3-D theatre,” she says. “Mind and body and soul working in circulation because otherwise it leads to falsehoods.”
Falsehoods are precisely what Churchill tries to expose in her complex and hilarious satire. Her approach to gender and race reveals that identity is no simple, monolithic entity. It morphs constantly, inside and out, to produce complicated psychological composites that are not always apparent on the surface. This is, after all, the theatre.
“Everyone must look fantastic,” says Palmer, “even if they have to be an ugly character.”
In collaboration with designer Judith Bowden, Palmer has been looking at examples of haute couture to clothe the cast in ways that will exemplify this paradoxical notion of ugly as captivating. She says that she is “so tired of seeing frumpy kinds of characters.”
“Actors are captivating. They have presence, a kind of sexual energy in and of itself, and to take that privilege of being onstage, a live event — the audience goes in the doors, you feel alive. It’s not a comparable experience to film. It’s part of being humans in a room together — that’s sexual.”
Being in a room together with the likes of Ben Carlson of Stratford fame, Megan Follows of Anne of Green Gables glory, Yanna McIntosh, Evan Buliung, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Blair Williams and David Jansen promises to deliver a very queer version of a very queer play. And yet, true to the spirit of so many of Caryl Churchill’s scripts, this cast is sure to show us just how queer it can be to be straight, and vice versa.
It really is a family show, for a new and exciting kind of nuclear family, where race and gender are not seen as fearful asymmetries. Rather, Palmer’s production of the show will attempt to reveal equality as a truly queer and highly entertaining venture.