Caryl Churchill bends time and gender in her sexual maelstrom of a play, Cloud 9, a work that calls for a man to play a woman, a woman to play a young boy, a white man to play a black man and dolls take on the roles of an infant and toddler. And that is just the first act. The show takes a satirical slant on colonialism, gender roles, the mutability of sexual identity and what it means to be male or female, gay or straight and the power structure that underlies these perceptions. Cloud 9 is a cornucopia of themes, a mélange of meaning. Antaeus Theatre Company’s smashing revival of the 1979 opus invests the work with freshness and passion that delivers raucous comedy and social satire with frank rudeness.
The first act opens with the cast singing a patriotic anthem praising the idea of Victorian England as a self-righteous global power. Set in the Africa of the 1880s, a rigid colonial administrator, Clive (Adam J. Smith), has a distant relationship with his yearning wife Betty (JD Cullum) and patronizes his black servant Joshua (John Allee), who has severed relationship with “his people.” Clive’s young son Edward (Gigi Bermingham) plays with dolls and his nanny, Ellen (Laura Wernette) harbors a sexual attraction to Betty. Betty’s mother, Maud (Joanna Strapp), is a firm believer in a woman’s subordinate role. Much admired by the family, Harry (Graham Hamilton) is an adventuring explorer who hides his homosexual urges while expressing a romantic, impossible passion for Betty. Mrs. Saunders (Laura Wernette), a widow from a neighboring farm takes refuge with the family due to unrest among the natives and has unemotional sex with Clive. For the most part, the act is played in a hilariously broad, overheated style that smacks of melodrama.
The exception is John Allee’s Joshua. His character is rigidly buttoned up. He stands at quiet attention, serves as requested, mostly, and draws uneasy attention, his blank expression hiding, what? How much patronizing can a man take? He, with the barest hint of discomfort, complies with Clive’s forceful request to sing a Christmas song he had learned and delivers the sweetest rendition of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
Cloud 9’s second act rockets to late 1970s London where some of the first act characters now reside. Through the magic of theatre, only twenty-five years have gone by for them. Baby Victoria, who was a doll in the first act, is now a grown married woman (Joanna Strapp) with a young son and married to an over-earnest, free thinking husband, Martin (Graham Hamilton). She makes friends with Lin (Laura Wernette) who has a preschool daughter, Cathy (Adam J. Smith). Gerry (John Allee) is a leather-jacketed gay man who loves random, zipless sex. His on again, off again lover is Edward (JD Cullum), a gentle domestic type who loves cooking and keepinghouse. Vicky’s mother, Betty (Gigi Bermingham), is living alone and slowly adjusting to a new life in the free sex era of London before the onset of AIDS.
Smartly directed by Casey Stangl, the acting ensemble is simply superb playing their parts with passion and verve. The production boasts a fine open set by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz (lighting by Leigh Allen) with large panels forming an impressive Union Jack upstage. Costumes by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg are period perfect and sound by musical director and composer Peter Bayne is excellent.
As is traditional at Antaeus, Cloud 9 is double cast. This review is based on performances by the Hotheads cast. The other cast is called the Blighters. For the rest of the run, a mixture of the two casts called the Spacemen play on Thursday and Friday nights
Cloud 9 at Antaeus proves that the play stands the test of time. It is a genuine crowd pleaser. This show is a don’t miss! It runs through April 24 at the company’s current home at 5112 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood. A planned move to a new venue in Glendale is in the works.