Heavy breathing

Cloud 9

By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tony Marinelli
Ryan Repertory Company
Harry Warren Theatre
Non-union production (closed)
Review by Dawn Zahra

Naughty, naughty, naughty: these are the first three words that leap to mind to describe Tony Marinelli's outrageous production of the Caryl Churchill cult classic, Cloud 9. Especially for those inclined to men in skirts, or braids -- or, for that matter, women playing man-sex-starved nine-year-old boys (tsk. tsk).

Always great fun, Cloud 9 is a topsy-turvy, madcap romp through scandal, innuendo, debauchery, and vice. Ryan Repertory's production made it even more so. The play is really two plays in one. The first act, set (according to this interpretation) in 1880, takes place at the height of the British Empire's reign in Africa. Churchill offers a scathing tongue-in-well-maybe-not-the-cheek commentary on colonial imperialism and its abuse of power. This devastating rebuke also gives Churchill the opportunity to wantonly display every kind of sexual "immorality" or deviance she can think up. The second act surreally uses many of the same characters as the first act but is set in London, 1979. (Confusingly for the characters, it's only 25 years after the first act, but go figure.) This segment tracks the period of England's dynamic sexual revolution: one where divorce, homosexuality, feminism, and paganism run rampant and are all merely common spectacles in England's vast cultural landscape.

The acting was quite up to par and even impressive at times. Donna Robinson was quite amazing as she shuffled chameleon-like between a widowed dominatrix and an introverted neurotic lesbian governess in Act I. And, speaking of men in drag, Robert Petrarca, who played Betty in Act I and Gerry in Act II, was simply superb. Also worthy of note was Robby Grossman, who gave a stellar performance as eerie servant Joshua in Act I and, later on, Cathy (an over-the-top four-year-old brat).

Although the acting was wonderful, the physical setting was a handicap. Actors were crammed onto a minuscule stage (an office elevator has more room). Although there was a stairway unit stage left, it was hardly utilized, and the area overhanging the playing area was unnecessary and obtrusive. It was also distracting having actors (throughout the play) constantly run up and down the aisles; apparently no one had found a more expedient way to move actors on and off the playing space, so they were continually panting.

That being said, the other design elements were superb. The costumes (Natalie Garfinkle) were quite lovely, and the sound (Gary Gerdes) was expertly produced. The lights (Marie Ingrisano) were nuanced and effective, and the original music (composed by Derek Stokes) was riveting. Given all of the elements together, the final effect was enchanting.

All in all, Ryan Rep.'s raunchy, immoral, irreverent, utterly politically incorrect and sometimes macabre rendition of Cloud 9 was a fabulous success. It is to be hoped that Marinelli's production will be reincarnated (at a larger theatre, please!).

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting: 2/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 Dawn Zahra