While I was watching Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, I began to try to imagine what it would have been like to see it in 1981 (when it débuted here) or even ’79 (when it premièred in London). It’s an artifact of its time (Thatcherite Britain principally, but also Reaganite America) but it still speaks to us today, 36 years after it first appeared on a stage. But let me back up a bit.
In the same conversation my theater partner Diana and I had some months back about upcoming theater events to consider (I explained this in the Quare Land report of 16 October), I told her that the Atlantic Theater Company was reviving Churchill’s best-known play in the fall. I’d never seen it and I thought Diana, who had originally contacted me back in the mid-’80s to ask me to be her Beatrice to the less prominent theater in New York, ought to see it if she hadn’t as well. It was, at least, a chance to catch up on some contemporary theater history. I myself hadn’t seen much Churchill, only Mad Forest in 1992, The Skriker in 1996, and Blue Heart in 1999, and Cloud Nine is a play that’s still talked about. So I booked seats and we met at the Linda Gross Theater, ATC’s Chelsea home, for the 8 p.m. performance on Friday, 16 October, for what turned out to be a truly fascinating theater experience (despite a physically uncomfortable seating construct—more about which later). ATC’s revival started previews on 16 September and opened on 5 October; the production’s scheduled closing date is 1 November.
The London and world première of Cloud 9 (as it was then billed), produced by the Joint Stock Theatre Group, a troupe of young actors launched by Max Stafford-Clark, was on 27 March 1979 under Stafford-Clarke’s direction at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs. Previously, Churchill and Stafford-Clark workshopped the play with JSTG on tour starting 14 February 1979 at Dartington College of the Arts in Devon, England. (In 1980, Churchill and Stafford-Clark revived the play, with a revised script and a different cast, at the Royal Court.) The play came to New York for its U.S. première in an again-minimally revised version at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village (renamed the Lucille Lortel Theatre in November ’81) from 18 May 1981 to 4 September 1983. The production ran for 971 performances under the direction of Tommy Tune and won the 1982 Obie Award for Playwriting for Churchill. There was a short-lived New York revival directed by Michael Rego at the Perry Street Theatre in the West Village from 3 November 1993 to 13 March 1994, but since then, despite the play’s popularity with rep companies and university theaters around the country, it hasn’t had a New York City return until now.
Caryl Churchill was born in 1938 in London. Though her family moved to Montreal when Churchill was 10, she returned to England for university at Oxford (1957; B.A. in English lit) and remained there. Churchill began playwriting at university as well; her earliest plays in the ’50s and ’60s were performed at Oxford-based theater troupes. She took up radio drama and teleplays in the ’60s and ’70s in order to raise a family (Churchill’s married to a lawyer and they have three sons), until in 1972, she wrote her first major stage play, Owners, which was staged at the Royal Court in London. In 1974, Churchill became Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court for a year and in the late 1970s into the1980s, wrote for several theater companies, including Max Stafford-Clark’s JSTG and the feminist collective, Monstrous Regiment. 1979’s Cloud 9, only Churchill’s second to come to New York, was her first play to garner wide attention and during that period, the playwright won three Obie Awards in New York (1982, Cloud 9; 1983, Top Girls; 2005, A Number) and a Society of West End Theatre Award in London in 1988.
Churchill’s best known for works dramatizing the abuse of power and exploring sexual politics and feminist themes using a non-realistic style. She experimented with form, though her themes remained constant. In 1991, for example, she incorporated dance, mime, and singing into the script of Lives of the Great Poisoners, which she wrote in collaboration with composer Orlando Gough (operas Kiss, 1989 – TV; Critical Mass, 2007 – Almeida Opera; The Finnish Prisoner, 2007 – Finnish National Opera; orchestral works Transmission 2011 and XX Scharnhorst, 2011 and ‘12 – site specific for the HMS Bellfast on the River Thames) and choreographer Ian Spink (Australian Ballet, Australian Dance Theatre, Dance Company of New South Wales). In 2009, controversy arose around Churchill’s 10-minute play, Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, her response to Israel’s 2008 military strike on Gaza, because of its negative portrayal of Israelis. (This uproar also hit Washington, D.C., and is mentioned in my post “The First Amendment & The Arts, Redux,” 13 February.) In spite of this, Royal Holloway College in Surrey named its new theater after the playwright in 2010. During the 2013-2014 season, Churchill worked with the New York Theater Workshop on her new drama, Love and Information, which ran from February to April 2014.
Her dramaturgy employs elements of Brechtian Epic Theater as well as Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. As she developed her style, her Postmodern plays became more and more fragmented and surrealistic (both characteristics being evident in Cloud Nine). The young troupes with which she started out commonly used long periods of improvisation to develop their productions and Churchill continued this practice with her own work. Her plays always contain strong political commentary, and alongside her focus on sexual politics and feminism, Churchill displays a definite streak of socialism, critical of most standard capitalist values such as aggressive wealth acquisition and getting ahead, in her writing (think the Bernie Sanders of the stage). She’s also a vocal supporter of Palestinian causes (and has been accused of being anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic, mostly by rightist Israelis and Jews and conservative media). Increasingly, the playwright abandoned the semblance of Realism and pushed the boundaries of theater. In 1997, she and Gough collaborated on Hotel, a “choreographed opera” or “sung ballet” that takes place in a hotel room.
Churchill’s plays originally seen in London and then in New York City include Cloud 9, Owners, Traps, Mad Forest, Far Away, A Number, Seven Jewish Children, Love and Information (all at the New York Theatre Workshop); Top Girls, Fen, Serious Money, Ice Cream, The Skriker, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? (all at the Public Theater and Top Girls recently also at the Manhattan Theatre Club); Blue Heart (BAM). Other plays include Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Vinegar Tom, Softcops, Three More Sleepless Nights, A Mouthful of Birds (with David Lan). The playwright has also written translations, including Thyestes (Seneca), A Dream Play (Strindberg), and Bliss (Olivier Choinière, French Canadian writer). Her music-theatre compositions include Lives of the Great Poisoners, Hotel, A Ring a Lamp a Thing (all with composer Gough). James Macdonald, director of ATC’s Cloud Nine, mounted Lives of the Great Poisoners and Thyestes in London, Top Girls and A Number in New York, and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? and Love and Information in both cities.
I’ve seen quite a few productions at the Atlantic Theater Company, from Wolf Lullaby by Hillary Bell in 1998 and The Water Engine & Mr. Happiness by David Mamet in 1999, to Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo in 2000, to Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Lesson in 2004 to A Second Hand Memory by Woody Allen and Romance by Mamet in 2005, to John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church in 2012 and John Guare’s 3 Kinds of Exile in 2013. (Those last two have been reported on ROT: 16 June 2012 and 27 June 2013, respectively.) The company was founded in 1985 by playwright David Mamet, actor William H. Macy, and 30 of their acting students from New York University, inspired by the historical examples of the Group Theatre and Konstantin Stanislavsky. ATC (co-founded by a playwright) believes that the story of a play and the intent of its playwright are at the core of the creative process. Though ATC does present work by classic and modern classic writers like Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ionesco, Harley Granville-Barker, and J. B. Priestley, the works the company produces mostly are contemporary realistic dramas by writers such as Allen, David Hare, Ethan Coen, Guare, and Mamet. Since its start, ATC has produced more than 120 plays, including the Tony Award-winning production of Spring Awakening (which the company moved to Broadway in 2006 and is now having a Broadway revival with a mixed cast of hearing and deaf actors).
The company maintains two theaters in Chelsea: the 199-seat Linda Gross Theater on West 20th Street in the parish hall of the former St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, built in 1854 and renovated in 2012, and the 99-seat black-box Stage 2 on West 16th Street in the former Port Authority Building. Stage 2, which opened in June 2006, is the home of Atlantic’s new play development program. ATC also operates the Atlantic Acting School, a professional conservatory and a studio of the NYU acting program; the school teaches Atlantic Technique, following Practical Aesthetics, an acting system originally conceived by Mamet and Macy.
The structure of Churchill’s Cloud Nine is unusual (especially for the 1980s) and greatly affects the narrative of the play. Act one is set, for instance, in Victorian times (the published edition says 1880, but it’s never intended to be that specific—even the costumes cover several decades of the late Victorian era) in an unidentified British colony in Africa. The second act is set in 1979 in London, but Churchill tells us that for the characters, only 25 years has passed; several characters from the first act return, a quarter of a century older (and played by different actors), joined by some new ones. The roles are cast—in a specific scheme set down in the script—across genders, ages, and races: several of the female characters (including a five-year-old girl in act two) are played by men, a male child is portrayed by a woman, and the sole native African character is played by a white actor. (I’ll address this in a bit.)
In the first act, we meet Clive (Clarke Thorell in a performance one blogger described as a “Terry Thomas type veneer”), a colonial official who apparently administers the colony; his wife Betty (Chris Perfetti); their son, Edward (Brooke Bloom), who’s confused about his gender identity (today, we’d identify him as transgender—which wouldn’t have been recognized in 1979, let alone 1880—and gay—anathema in Victoria’s day); and their daughter, Victoria (portrayed by a doll). Also in the household are Betty’s mother, Maud (Lucy Owen); Edward’s governess, Ellen (Izzie Steele); and the family’s African servant, Joshua (Sean Dugan). They are awaiting the arrival from the bush of Clive’s friend Harry Bagley (John Sanders), an explorer, but just as the family is gathered on the veranda, in rushes their neighbor Mrs. Saunders (Steele), a recent widow who’s clearly frightened. Clive explains early in the act that there’s a disturbance brewing among the local tribes, though we never learn the specifics and Clive and Harry don’t discuss it in front of the women and children. Everyone’s very stiff-upper-lip, of course, like proper English gentlemen and ladies—except, of course, when the veil slips a little when they think they aren’t being observed. After all, the colony is a little bit of England and they are all there to do their duties, fulfill their prescribed roles—as British imperialists; as men and women; as husbands, wives, and children; as mothers and fathers—whatever the Empire and the queen expects and demands of them. The act opens with a rendition by the family and Joshua of “Come Gather Sons of England,” a Victorian patriotic hymn with decidedly imperialist and militarist sentiments.
Of course, not all is what it seems—actually almost nothing is what it seems! Though Joshua (played by a white actor) has announced in the opening:
My skin is black but oh my soul is white
I hate my tribe. My master is my light.
I only live for him. As you can see,
What white men want is what I want to be,
we discover that he’s not as loyal to his colonial masters as they believe. (Inscrutability is usually a stereotype of Asians, but it’s probably a skill learned by all colonially subjugated peoples.) Not only is he insubordinate to Betty when Clive isn’t around, but he’s in a sexual relationship with manly, dashing Harry. In fact, Churchill reveals pretty quickly some example of every sexual relationship there is (oh, except bestiality, I guess) in the rest of act one. Betty (played by a man) wants Harry, to whom she’d become attracted on a previous visit, to take her way with him when he inevitably leaves; Harry, on the other hand, likes to have sex with both Joshua and Edward (played by a woman), who declares, “What father wants I’d dearly like to be. / I find it rather hard as you can see”; governess Ellen is in love with Betty; and Clive lusts after Mrs. Saunders. (This is my second play this season in which a man puts his head up under a woman’s dress and performs oral sex as the woman moans in ecstasy. “I can’t concentrate,” groans Mrs. Saunders.) At the end of act one, as Clive is making a speech at the contrived wedding of Harry and Ellen, Joshua stands in the back of the gathering, pointing a rifle at his master. Only Edward sees this, and the lights go out on this tableau.
In the second act, the story jumps ahead about a hundred years to 1979 (the present when the play was written and first performed). In Churchill’s modern day, women seem to be in control, at least on the relationship level, and gay people get to live their lives the way they want—more or less. They still run into roadblocks, but they aren’t erected by straight men, like the Clives of the world. (In real life, of course, the Clives may have changed their tactics and even some of their motivations—the world map was far less pink by the ’70s—but make no mistake, they were still running things. Despite the fact that Margaret Thatcher—who was really a Clive in drag anyway—was elected prime minister in May 1979. British imperialism is still on display: one of the women in act two has a brother who was a British soldier killed in Northern Ireland—his ghost appears to her briefly.)
Remembering that for the characters in Cloud Nine, only 25 years has elapsed, Victoria (now played by Lucy Owen) and Edward (Chris Perfetti), Clive and Betty’s daughter and son from act one, are at the center of the narrative. Eddy’s grown up to be gay and Vicky, whose married to intense, but nevertheless talkative Martin (John Sanders), has decided to leave him and move in with Lin (Izzie Steele), a divorced lesbian mom. Edward, working as a gardener in the park where Lin and Victoria bring their children, has begun a difficult affair with Gerry (Sean Dugan), a sort of teddy boy-manqué (he wears denim instead of leather), whose into promiscuity (in this dawn of the AIDS crisis, just breaking into the news when the play débuted in New York). Even Betty entertains the idea of taking up with Gerry—until he explains he’s totally gay, even as Eddy’s begun to explore his own bisexuality. Vicky’s raising her unseen son, Tommy, with little help from Martin, and Lin looks after her little daughter, Cathy (a bratty Clarke Thorell), by herself. (Whereas little Edward played with dolls, much to his father’s dismay, in act two, Cathy likes toy guns and fighting with the boys, which Lin doesn’t discourage. What dismays Lin, though, is Cathy’s preference for dresses over jeans!) Victoria leaves Martin and sets up a household with Lin and their kids, and when he breaks up with Gerry, who’s a tad commitment-phobic, Edward moves in with them in a ménage-à-trois (or -cinque, if you count in the two kids)—which one reviewer called “a polysexual thruple.” Betty announces that she’s left Clive (the 1979 incarnation of whom we don’t see) and suggests that she, too, join Lin, Vicky, and Eddy. She’s been married for so long, living as the adjunct to her husband, that she has no idea how to live as a single woman in charge of her own life. (Back in the first act, Betty announced, “I am a man’s creation as you see, and what men want is what I want to be.”) Her mistaken attempt at hooking up with Gerry, even though it came to naught, has given her some courage. (And Gerry may get back together with Edward anyway.)
In a scene with Victoria, Lin, and Edward, who’ve been drinking pretty heavily, in the yard of their shared house, Victoria leads them in an incantation to call forth “The Goddess.” Afterwards, Victorian characters from the first act (and Lin’s dead brother) begin appearing, reprising lines from their earlier dialogue. After a conversation with Gerry about life and love, Betty finally accepts herself for who she is, rather than what men wanted her to be—and her younger self appears to her and they hug.
I don’t think I can resolve that question I brought up earlier—we’ve all grown too wise to return to the mindset of 35 years ago—but it’s curious because I’m pretty sure Churchill intended the play’s second act to be a stern comment on the then-current sexual culture in England. (The first act was the “control group” in a way: the Victorian society which we take for granted was repressed and moralistic—despite the facts under the surface.) Actually, I like theater (and literature) that makes me ponder that kind of question. It means the piece is really doing more than just telling a story. (This is one of my criteria for “good theater,” if ROT-readers recall. The other one’s “theatricality”--and Cloud Nine has that in spades. [My fullest definition of these standards is in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” 27 May 2011.])
The playwright wrote that
the idea of colonialism as a parallel to sexual oppression . . . had been briefly touched on in the workshop. When I thought of the colonial setting the whole thing fell quite quickly into place. Though no character is based on anyone in the company, the play draws deeply on our experiences, and would not have been written without the workshop.
The way I see it, Churchill exposes the hidden lives of the vaunted conformist and conventional Victorians that legend tells us was really seething with all kinds of illicit sexual practices. (ATC adds that Cloud Nine “is about power, politics, family, [and] Queen Victoria,” as well as sex, which in Cloud Nine includes not only extra-marital affairs and homosexuality, but bisexuality, miscegenation, and pederasty as well; in act two Churchill gets in a little incest as well.) All the coveted relationships are forbidden in this society and all are unrequited even though everyone declares his or her love or desire straightforwardly (when, of course, they think no one’s listening). Since none of this would have been openly tolerated in Victorian Britain (or America, either), however, it had to be covered up and denied (“You don’t feel what you think you do,” Betty tells Ellen), hence the sham marriage between Harry and Ellen arranged by Clive. It also accounts for Clive’s maintaining his marriage to Betty even after he learns of her attachment to Harry—appearances must be maintained. Never mind, of course, that Clive himself is guilty of a little extra-marital dalliance himself—with Mrs. Saunders, herself an example of another kind of Victorian anomaly: the independent woman who doesn’t need a man to justify her life.
There’s a good deal of humor, some of it wry and ironic and other bits nearly farcical, in act one, which is largely a satire. Churchill mocks the Victorian image in order to set it up for contrast with “modern” England. It’s humor, of course, with an edge, and there’s less of it in the second part of the play. Act two, which Adam Feldman called “uncorseted” in Time Out New York, a metaphor I find apt, pokes some fun at relationships (gay and straight), parenting, and sex, but the jokes are fewer and less funny than in act one. Act two, largely realistic in style, is where Churchill seems to be making her main points about the U.K. and the world. Another contrast between the two parts of Cloud Nine is that most of the characters in act one are focused on what others—men, whites, adults—expect of them, but in act two, everyone’s concerned first with her or his own desires and needs first and foremost. Even repressed Betty, more a refugee from the ’50s than a left-over Victorian, eventually finds a way to pursue what she wants from life.
Then Churchill reveals her vision of modern times, a Britain where women and gays make their own decisions about how to live openly and without guile or subterfuge. In fact, the sole heterosexual male in the second act cast is depicted as something of a blowhard and feminist poseur. But Churchill’s dramatic vision doesn’t exactly line up with actual Thatcherite Britain; it’s as much a fairy tale as the Victorian story. (In England and Wales, homosexuality wasn’t even legalized until 1967; in Scotland, that didn’t happen until 1981 and in Northern Ireland, 1982. Other gender-preference rights and protections didn’t come along until the 21st century. By 1979 in the U.S., anti-sodomy laws had been struck down or repealed in only 21 of 50 states; they weren’t declared unconstitutional nationwide until 2003.)
As for the cross casting, Churchill explained:
There were no black members of the company and this led me to the idea of Joshua being so alienated from himself and so much aspiring to be what white men want him to be that he is played by a white. Similarly, Betty, who has no more respect for women than Joshua has for blacks, and who wants to be what men want her to be, is played by a man. For Edward to be played by a woman is within the English tradition of women playing boys (e.g. PETER PAN); for Cathy to be played by a man is a simple reversal of this. Of course, for both that reversal highlights how much they have to be taught to be society’s idea of a little boy and girl.
So just as male dominanation and sexual oppression in the home recapitulates Western imperialism and suppression of the local population abroad, gender roles and even gender itself is revealed to be performative, something we learn to portray to accommodate social norms. Further, it’s all something of a chimera anyway.
The doubling scheme can vary from production to production—as it did between the 1979 première at the Royal Court and the revival there a year later, as well as the Theatre de Lys mounting in ’81 and ATC’s. It all depends on the director’s desire “partly to fit the parts to the different actors and partly to give us all a chance to try something new.” But the dramatist warned, “Different doublings throw up different resonances.” At ATC, for instance, it said something to me that the actor playing Maud, Betty’s stern and unbending mother in act one, returns as free-living (and -loving) Victoria, Maud’s granddaughter, in act two, and that openly gay Edward in the second act is portrayed by the actor who’d been Betty, his convention-bound mother, in the first. It’s also interesting when Betty in act two embraces Betty from act one since the actors had played mother and daughter in the colonial scenes and now the question arises, are we seeing modern Betty embracing her predecessor—or the modern mother accepting her younger daughter? Maybe it’s both at once? Another casting plan wouldn’t have raised that question.
ATC’s production of Cloud Nine, under the direction of James Macdonald, was conceived and designed to be performed in the round. Set designer Dane Laffrey created a plain wooden circle of bleachers, resembling a miniature bull ring (or, as one cyber reviewer called it, “a wooden O”), that replaces the Linda Gross’s normal seating plan. (This alone is an element of “theatricality.”) This set-up brings the performers into close range of the spectators, but it also reduces the practicality of props and set pieces. As a result, while the action of the play and the work of the actors is right in front of us, the production needs few stage objects—just the bare necessities for the characters’ activities. In the first act, the ground is covered with coarse, red artificial dirt; in the second, it’s artificial grass. Churchill’s play doesn’t need any more, as long as the actors do the kind of superb work ATC’s cast provided. It’s a play of the imagination in any case, so stimulating ours helps make it work better anyway. (The bleachers are cushioned—and additional padding is available for those with sensitive tushies—but the narrow benches, low backs, and cramped legroom made the long performance—2½ hours with one intermission following the hour-and-twenty-minute first act—a bit less comfortable than the usual theater seats. This seems to be my year for long plays, and if the show weren’t as excellent an experience as this was, it would have been unpleasant. I don’t imagine that the 1981 U.S. première was staged this way, since I doubt the producers and impresario Lucille Lortel would have redesigned the Theatre de Lys into an arena.)
Scott Zielinski’s lighting is bright and glaring, especially in act one, evoking, at least in my mind, the “midday sun” out into which only “mad dogs and Englishmen” venture. In act two, there’s nary a sight of London’s vaunted fog or rain—it’s nearly as bright there as in Africa. The clothes of Gabriel Berry reflect this tropical or temperate summer glare, as far as the period’s strictures will allow—and not a hint of drag anywhere. The Victorians, of course, are covered from head (the period wigs are by Cookie Jordan) to toe; even young Edward wears long stockings to cover his legs, left bare by his knickers—and despite the heat, all the men wear jackets of one kind or another just to keep up propriety. (Joshua is dressed in wrapped fabric with a turban, such as I might imagine in a movie set in British South Asia—say Malaya or Burma.) In act two, the garb loosens up a bit as far as conventions go. Darren West’s sound design, from the jungle noises and native drums of Africa to the off-stage urban soundscape of London, set a perfect tone, somewhere between scary hyperreal and caricature. (The jungle sounds might have been the soundtrack from an old Johnnie Weissmuller Tarzan flick or something with Stewart Granger.) And I should say a word of praise for the dialect coaching of Ben Furey: while not everyone was note-perfect in their British dialects, all did a more than acceptable job and they were consistent, which is almost more important than plug-accuracy.
The directing of James Macdonald, an Obie-winner for Churchill’s Love and Information at NYTW and helmer of the film version of the writer’s A Number on HBO, was controlled and, given the peculiarities of the performance space, smooth. From 1992 to 2006, Macdonald was associate director of the Royal Court, the cradle of many of Churchill’s plays. He maneuvered the company from the bound-up 1880s to the liberated 1979 without a glitch, maintaining a continuity in the second act to the first despite the casting shifts. (Of course, the actors are as much responsible for these accomplishments as Macdonald is, but they’ll get their due momentarily.) Most importantly, the director established the right tone for the ATC production of Cloud Nine to keep it both topical and revelatory, and humorous and slightly mocking. He kept the actors all in the same universes, which I imagine isn’t an easy task with Churchill’s scripts—a bit, I imagine, like wrangling artistic cats.
Cloud Nine is clearly an ensemble piece, and it’s key for each actor not only to be on the same page as the rest of the cast, but attuned to the others. (There are no star turns in Cloud Nine.) That makes it difficult to single out any one actor for special mention, so I won’t except to note a few moments. I was particularly impressed by the scene in which Harry inadvertently reveals his sexuality to Clive: Sanders and Thorell display the exact level of squirminess and discomfort for the setting, time, and tone of the play. (Even unease is an emotion frowned upon by the Victorians.) The same for Clive and Mrs. Saunders’s oral sex scene, clearly something outside the image of Victorian Britain; Thorell and Steele pull it off (as it were) perfectly. (I said that this was the second scene like this I’ve seen this season. The other, in the Acting Company’s Desire, report posted on 26 September, was also well performed. In the acting sense, I mean, of course.) The pompous speech by Martin in act two is extremely well presented by Sanders, with just the right touches of smarm and earnestness, and Betty’s second-act monologue, which ends up extolling masturbation, is delicately but forcefully (it’s proof that at least an accomplished actor can do both) delivered by Bloom. There are other very nice bits by Bloom’s Edward and Perfetti’s Betty in act one (not to mention Dugan’s almost affectless portrayal of Joshua), as well as Steele’s frustrated and bereft Lin and Thorell’s rambunctious (dare I say “tomboyish”) Cathy in act two. But this production must come down in the end to the ensemble, and this one, with the guidance of director Macdonald, performs magnificently.
Among my recent shows, I was disappointed (not to mention dismayed) at the lack of press coverage for a number of them; there seems to be a cut-back on theater reporting even among the cyber reviewers. Cloud Nine, on the other hand, seems to have been deemed worthy of coverage from most New York outlets (though a few, such as the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Variety, apparently didn’t judge the revival significant enough to review—at least not on line). New York’s Daily News declared the production a “very fine revival,” with Joe Dziemianowicz praising, among other aspects, “Caryl Churchill’s wicked and funny gender-bending script about sex, power and roles.” The Newsman also reported that “the most compelling reason is the sublime actress Brooke Bloom, who stands out in a well-oiled ensemble.” And though the “[c]ramped wooden bleachers may make your back ache,” Dziemianowicz argued, “[t]he play and the performances will make your head buzz.” In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer made the intriguing statement,
The temporary reconfiguration of the proscenium stage into theater-in-the-round is pleasantly disorienting at the Atlantic Theater. But that literal shift in perspective is nothing compared to the head-spinning, giddy thrills and vertiginous goings-on in Caryl Churchill’s still-wonderful “Cloud Nine.”
Remarking that the cross-casting in the 1981 U.S. première “felt giddily ahead of its time,” Winer added, “Now, in a production impeccably cast and directed by . . . James Macdonald, we’re aware that a work this clever will always be a step ahead, always pushing us playfully to see human connections that are elusive, important and seriously fun.” With special praise for the acting of Bloom, Perfetti, Owen, and Dugan, as well as Berry’s costumes, Winer concluded by stating bluntly: “All perfect.”
Ben Brantley of the New York Times averred that “few writers have come closer to making sense of the hormonal urges that rule, transport and disrupt our lives than Caryl Churchill does in ‘Cloud Nine.’” Calling the playwright “one of the wisest and bravest playwrights on the planet,” Brantley stated, “More than three decades ago—when ‘trans’ as a prefix most commonly meant something to do with automobiles she dared set up camp in that hazy frontier land where the boundaries of gender and the rules of attraction blur and dissolve.” The Timesman continued his praise, writing that “James Macdonald’s pheromone-fresh production, which features a deliciously mutable cast of seven, makes it clear that today we’re still living in this gray zone of polymorphous selves, whether we admit it or not.” After expressing qualms that the play he saw and “loved” in 1981 might seem “like a worthy . . . artifact,” Brantley attested that “Ms. Churchill’s play is far less polemical and arch than I remembered. It has none of the quaint, hipper-than-thou smugness that often clings to works once perceived as being defiantly ahead of their times.” Assuring prospective theatergoers that Cloud Nine never “comes across as anything like a debate or a lecture,” the Times reviewer observed that “the ensemble members feel utterly, emotionally in the moment. If the actors and actresses ever seem distanced from their parts, it’s only because their characters, too, are wearing disguises that don’t fit them naturally.” The review-writer continued that Cloud Nine is “an ideal showcase for the teasing metaphors and metamorphoses in which theater specializes,” but, he informed us, “its artifice never feels like a stunt.” Brantley concluded, “This compassionate, tough-loving production finds the ecstasy, tragedy and exhilarating madness of what it means to be part of this eternal ball of confusion.” In amNew York, Matt Windman dubbed the ATC production “a fine revival of one of the most dynamic English dramas of the past four decades.” After joining the chorus of journalists who complained about the seating structure, Windman concluded that if would-be spectators can withstand the discomfort, “‘Cloud Nine’ is experimental, highly political playwriting at its best.”
In the Village Voice, Miriam Felton-Dansky dubbed Cloud Nine an “incisive, ironic” play and a “Brechtian fantasia” that’s under “expert direction” by Macdonald. “In the hands of this excellent ensemble,” averred Felton-Dansky, “Churchill’s clear-eyed, darkly comic play shows us . . . just how revelatory revivals can be.” Jesse Green, characterizing the ATC staging as “a superb revival” in New York magazine, said that the play “has only grown fuller, meatier, sadder, funnier, sexier, and more provocative—more theatrical, too—as the conditions from which it arose have changed radically, and have not.” Green described the cast as “excellent” and wrote, “I trust they will haunt me as long as the original cast did because I’d like to see what this indispensable modern classic has become in another 34 years.”
In Time Out New York, Adam Feldman dubbed Cloud Nine a “delicious hash of gender and genre” and warned that it “may be less surprising than it was 35 years ago,” but he added that “director James Macdonald and his cast . . . keep its edges sharp.” The man from TONY concluded, “Troubled and troubling, puckish and perverse, Churchill’s play is still a slice of theater heaven.” Jesse Oxfeld characterized Cloud Nine, which he described as a “semi-ironic, farcical script,” as “a funny, fantastical study of the burdens placed upon us by expectations, and whether they can ever really be thrown off” in the Hollywood Reporter. He went on to say, “There are many remarkable and surprising things in Churchill’s landmark play, . . . [b]ut perhaps most remarkable is to consider how its gleeful gender- and orientation-bending . . . would have been received in a Britain on the verge of Thatcherism.” The current revival, he said, “remains intriguing, if no longer quite so subversive.” Oxfeld did lament, “There’s a sense of fun in the performers that is lost from Act I to Act II, or at least in the characters, which renders their performances less crackling,” even though he acknowledged, “The cast is strong.” He designated one of Betty’s final lines in act two “an epigraph for the play”: “If there isn’t a right way to do things, you have to invent one.”
In the cyber press, the sentiment was largely the same, despite more coverage. On the Huffington Post, Wilborn Hampton, calling the ATC Cloud Nine “a delightfully ribald revival,” wrote that “Churchill has been one of the most iconoclastic writers in the English theater over the past half century, pillorying the hypocrisies of society with acerbic wit and humor and uncanny insight.” (He also quipped, “Should one be tempted to think that present-day openness on sexual matters makes the play irrelevant they should ask Kim Davis her opinion on the subject.”) Though Hampton felt the play is “a challenge for actors,” he applauded director Macdonald, who “has put together a first-rate cast that doesn’t miss a nuance in the play.” TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart pronounced that Cloud Nine “brilliantly charts the life and death of a global superpower—a cautionary tale Americans would be wise to heed.” He reported, “Under the sensitive and surefooted direction of James Macdonald, Cloud Nine offers a smart social critique that transcends time.”
Noting that Churchill’s “focus [is] on gender, economics and power,” Elyse Sommer reported on CurtainUp that “all of which Cloud Nine combines with unique and hilarious theatricality.” Of the cross-casting and doubling, Sommer wrote, “Expertly done and fun as [it] is, once you catch on to the satirical expose of Victorian hypocrisy, the humor wears a bit thin.” She added, “What’s more, the gender and race blind casting tends to make the revelations about each character’s true nature somewhat predictable.” Sommer also seemed to have been turned off by the play’s length, observing first that Churchill has since learned to write shorter scripts and ending her notice with the statement that “one can’t help wishing Mr. Macdonald had speeded things up.” (I have to remark that I may have found the seating set-up less than comfortable, which Sommer complains of at some length, but I never felt the play was too long to sustain its dramatic point.) The CU reviewer ended her notice by stating that Cloud Nine is “still a provocative entertainment. But don’t expect to be on cloud nine in terms of your physical comfort zone.” Michael Dale called Macdonald’s revival of Cloud Nine “terrific” on Broadway World and reported that the play “has been described as carnivalesque in style; a reflection on its treatment of serious subjects with an absurd view of reality.” Dale continued, “Light on plot, Churchill’s dark comedy bends time, gender and race in an evening that is more fixed on roles and relationships.”
Matthew Murray of Talkin’ Broadway declared that “Cloud Nine feels fresh, crazy, and relevant enough to have been written yesterday.” Indeed, Murray felt that societal questions and debates of the last few years “make the Atlantic Theater Company’s new revival of the play even sharper and more trenchant than it might otherwise seem.” He asserted that “Churchill so determinedly doesn’t let them or us off the hook until the very end, when past and present collide violently together, is a mark of bravery that lets this bizarre, compelling piece work yet today.” The TB writer, however, objected, “That is not to say it works perfectly. Macdonald and his cast haven’t yet unlocked the same playful verve in Act II that they have in Act I, leaving the last hour of the two-and-a-half-hour evening feeling drearier and less specific than it should.” He explained, “There’s an uneasy sense of this being two different (if related) plays performed sequentially rather than a single continuous thought.” Nonetheless, director Macdonald has “done well enough to keep you buzzing with bright appreciation even after the play has ended.”