Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 19
by Jarice Hanson
Caryl Churchill became an internationally recognized playwright with her 1979 gender-bending satire of politics, both sexual and political. Hartford Stage’s Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson’s directorial debut at Hartford Stage is successful on many fronts, with a cast of exceptionally fine actors and creative use of the theater from multiple playing spaces, including the back brick wall of the theater. Actors make entrances and exits through aisles only to show up moments later with complete costume changes in another area of the theater entirely. The energy of the actors and the multi-directional staging works to keep the audiences slightly off-kilter, which seems to be a theme of the play.
Act I takes place in colonial Africa as we are introduced to Victorian themes of sexual expression and gender performance. “Betty,” the wife, is played by a male performer and “Edward,” the son, by a woman. “Joshua,” the African native, is portrayed by a White male, and one female performer plays two female characters, almost magically becoming transformed with complete costume change in seconds. Act II takes place in London, with some of the same characters having grown up and expressing their new sexuality (and sexual confusion) in more contemporary terms. In a fanciful, farcical performance, Clive the father from Act I, becomes his own niece, “Kathy,” in Act II.
It takes fully committed performers to find the truth in each of these characters, and “Cloud 9” is blessed with a strong, ensemble cast, though two performers are standouts. Mark H. Dold as Clive/Kathy is one of the most impressive actors working today, and he is complimented by Mia Dillon, as Edward/Betty, whose Act II monologue is told with heartbreaking clarity and insight for the sexual mores and attitudes that span the two time periods.
“Cloud 9” is a complicated play that can be difficult for some audience members. It does, however, underscore how powerful Caryl Churchill’s voice has been in demonstrating how theater can lead us to face emotions and relationships that are hard to talk about, and to understand. Almost 40 years after its debut, “Cloud 9” is still effective. Whether you like it or not, “Cloud 9” gives the audience plenty to think about and appreciate.