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Family of Man 

Though you might need a flowchart to keep track of the players, Cloud Nine delivers its message with wit

Wednesday, May 23 2001
Living in San Francisco today -- when the Board of Supervisors has approved insurance coverage for city workers who want to have sex-change operations -- you have to ask yourself whether Caryl Churchill's 1979 play paralleling colonial and sexual oppression and incorporating sexual themes from adultery to incest can still enlighten (or shock) audiences. While the jury's still out on that one, what's timelessly exciting about Cloud Nine is its structure, a striking example of the adage "Form is an extension of content." Director Arturo Catricala must have picked up on the play's structure as well: The New Conservatory Theater Center's production perfectly realizes its form and delivers its content with delightful wit.

Because of its complexity, Cloud Nine defies easy plot synopsis, but it proceeds roughly as follows: Clive (Lee Corbett) is a British colonial administrator, simultaneously carrying out Queen Victoria's goal of taming Africa and his own goal of maintaining a "perfect" family. But Clive's family is an outlandish bunch: His daughter, Victoria, is played by a doll; his young son, Edward, is played by a girl (Megan Towle); his wife, Betty, is played by a man (Kenny Neal Shults); and his black servant, Joshua, is played by a white guy (John-Michael Beck). Only his mother-in-law, Maud (Patricia Miller), escapes any race or gender changes. Before the end of Act 1, Ellen the governess and the dominatrix widow Mrs. Saunders (both played by Tiffany Hoover) appear, as does Clive's ol' (bisexual) chum Harry Bagley (Jeff Larson), who has a thing for both the young Edward and for Betty.

But wait, it gets better. In Act 2 (set in 1979 London) Victoria has grown into a real live woman (Towle, formerly brother Edward); Betty (Hoover, formerly Mrs. Saunders) is leaving Clive; Edward (Corbett, formerly father Clive) falls in love with Ger-ry (Shults, formerly mother Betty) -- and so it goes. The other new characters are Victoria's husband, Martin (Larson, formerly Harry); her lesbian friend, Lin (Miller, formerly Maud -- "Maudlin," get it?); and Lin's young daughter, Cathy (Beck, formerly Joshua). Is your head spinning? Trust me: It plays out much better onstage than on paper.

Churchill's writing comments not only on the dominant culture's ideals and how it imposes them, but also on the minority culture's acceptance of that repression. As such, one would expect Cloud Nine to be long, heavy-handed, and preachy. On the contrary, it's a hilarious bit of British farce that's obviously great fun to perform. Corbett plays Clive as if he just stepped out of a Monty Python skit, talking with the corners of his mouth turned down and nonchalantly delivering his beyond-the-pale lines. ("I have a hair in my mouth," he says as he emerges from under Mrs. Saunders' skirt.) Hoover is an enthusiastic Saunders, beating Corbett's butt with her riding crop. Shults gets the perseverance award: In a floral Victorian dress and brown wig, he delivers all of Betty's lines in a high, breathy voice -- then makes a stunning transition to Gerry, with his army boots and leather jacket, flopped on a park bench with his legs wide apart. ("I'm not the husband so you can't be the wife," he snaps at the mature Edward.) The stocky Beck plays an appropriately nightmarish 4-year-old Cathy. In a frilly pink dress with a blond ringlet wig and pink bows -- and a gun holster -- he runs about reciting lewd rhymes ("Yum yum bubble gum/ Stick it up your mother's bum"). Towle proves a noteworthy Bay Area newcomer, portraying the juvenile Edward with an exuberant youthfulness that quickly shifts to a subtle maturity in a poignant scene with Larson (as Harry). In fact, the two actors share a palpable energy. Miller is wonderfully crotchety as set-in-her-ways Maud, but visibly breaks gender conventions as Lin ("Don't hit him, Cathy, kill him. Point the gun").

The production is a triumph for Catricala, showing both his range and his imagination. Act 1 is a fast-paced comedic romp, while Act 2 switches gears, bringing characters from Act 1 back like ghosts, partially hidden upstage behind a black scrim and illuminated by a pale light. In her 1983 notes on the play, Churchill listed two possible double-casting arrangements. Catricala chose the one she preferred less, but it has a huge payoff in an Act 2 scene between Betty and Gerry. If you've managed to keep all the double-casting straight, you'll know that Betty's talking to her former self (I won't give away the rest). Scenes like this one balance the play's farce with its underlying political message, delivering a package that's pretty to look at and rewarding to open.

About The Author

Karen McKevitt


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