Opening Nights: Cloud Nine

Caryl Churchill's gender-bending--well, everything-bending--is entrancing and utterly daft.

When I first saw this gender-bending, cross-dressing, century-skipping satire 30 years ago, I was barely out of my teens, and it seemed as subversive as anything by Joe Orton or Jules Feiffer. With a first act lampooning English colonial rule in Africa in the late 19th century, and the second set in a London park where punk meets Maggie Thatcher, Cloud Nine is both pointed and dated by today's standards. When Caryl Churchill wrote the play, she was taking aim at all kinds of prejudice, some of which survives in present-day England. (Substitute anti-Muslim hysteria for racism, for instance.) Still, 30 years is 30 years, and some may view the play as an historical curio, no more contemporary than Kennedy's Children or Master Harold . . . and the Boys. But given Strawberry Theatre Workshop's typical high standards and attention to detail, it's still a sterling production and well worth the watching. Churchill's script often trips over itself to be clever. For instance, most of the same characters appear in both acts; but although a century has passed during the intermission, only 25 years have passed for the characters. Got it? And better: None of the actors plays the same character in the second act as they did in the first, and several switch gender in the process. It's just this kind of seemingly arbitrary lunacy that had audiences agog when the play debuted in 1979. Ostensibly, the shuffling of characters, era, and gender suggested how much and how little had changed since Victorian times. No matter that the point could have been made more simply or clearly; part of the play's original thrill was how Churchill moved her characters like so many chess pieces to remonstrate against bigotry. And today, can we really say the world is free of prejudice and bizarre inversions of station? See the white female evangelist Michele Bachmann, who rose to political power preaching against "the gays." One wonders whether Iron Lady Thatcher would approve. Blessedly, director Nick Garrison has found a group of actors who can fake English accents well enough to suspend disbelief. And he presents all their mayhem with a knowing wink and nod. While Cloud Nine is as much an anachronism as any Monty Python or Benny Hill sketch, he has a cast that infuses it with life and a wicked zeal. Ian Bell (as both patriarch Clive and preteen tyrant Cathy) leads the ensemble, but at its core is Gretchen Krich, who renders three divergent examples of feminine empowerment—a brilliant triptych of British womanhood over the previous century. (The tech work is immaculate, and special plaudits go to sound designer Robertson Witmer, who wrings every laugh possible out of an onstage face-slap.) Times have changed, sure, but Cloud Nine remains exotic, entrancing, and utterly daft.

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