Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 may have been more shocking and taboo-shattering when it first opened twenty years ago, but its starkly and wittily presented insights into human nature and societal hypocrisies are as resonant as ever. The Florida Project's production, with its brilliant acting, superb direction, and clever design, did full justice to this excellent play.
In the first act, set in 19th century colonial Africa, actors playing across gender and racial lines portrayed a set of characters most of whose true emotional and/or sexual yearnings were mercilessly stifled by the mores of a brutal yet superficially civilized society. Those mores were embodied by a dominant person in one relationship who would turn out to be the dominated person in another: the master of the household enslaved by his desire for a neighbor's widow, the bullying servant regarded as a subhuman serf by his master. The entire ensemble cast played each role, with its inherent dualities, to a tee. Kudos to director Clare Mottola for evincing such a uniformly fine set of performances. Robin Bloodworth was dashing yet comical as the manly explorer/craven pedophile, Harry Bagley. Rachel Fowler was affectingly helpless as Ellen and chillingly bitter as Mrs. Saunders. Nicole Golden was heartbreakingly plaintive as the sissy-labelled Edward. Derek Manson was stunning as the seemingly self-controlled butler who finally flips his lid, Joshua. J. Christopher O'Connor personified the absurd hypocrisies of the colonialist/mysoginist Victorian male with hilarious accuracy as Clive. Paula Stevens exercised a steely, matronly control over her hapless daughter as that paragon of Victorian femininity, Maud. And Chris Tomaino's Betty, the fluttering, unself-aware, unhappy mistress of the household, was a poignant tour-de-force.
The second act, set in present day London but presenting some of the same characters aged by only a generation, brings the social critique to a subtler level, revealing the "freedom" brought by the sexual revolution and feminist movement to be as confusing and even confining, in some ways, as colonialist repression. The same actors, playing all new roles, were once again splendid. Derek Manson was uncanny as a self-willed little girl. Rachel Fowler was both provocative and tender as the working-class lesbian, Lin. Nicole Golden, playing the grown-up Victoria -- baby daughter of Betty back in act one, and played by a rag doll therein -- conveyed the many layers of a modern woman struggling to find happiness in a world where any choice is supposedly acceptable. As her brother, the now grown up and openly gay but still reserved Edward, J. Christopher O'Connor shined in a role completely opposite to the one he played in act one. Paula Stevens was achingly funny as the elderly Betty, turned somewhat into her own mother (played by herself in act one) but finding, late in life, the strength to rebel and start over on a voyage of self-discovery. Chris Tomaino was believable and charismatic as the swaggering yet unexpectedly sensitive Gerry. And Robin Bloodworth was again hapless, but in a completely new way, as Victoria's insensitive but well-meaning husband, Martin.
Daryl A. Stone's white costumes of the first act were evocative and perfect, as were her modern duds for act two. Michael Allen provided just the right touches, such as gold-ribbon-bedecked champagne goblets, to create a fully imagined world for both acts. Lighting, by Susan Chute, and sound design, by David Dunn, were also fitting and effective. Composer Alexander A. Yagupsky set Caryl Churchill's lyrics to appropriate, original, and memorable music during the show's few musical numbers.
In all, this production was superb in both conception and execution.
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Copyright 2001 Jillian Perlberger