Plus ça change

Cloud Nine

By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tom Herman
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street, Brooklyn (718/595-0547)
Equity showcase (closes Sept. 26)
Review by Jenny Sandman

The Gallery Players are one of Brooklyn's few resident theatre companies. Over the years, they've built up a good reputation, and their season opener, Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, was another success for them.

Cloud Nine, written in 1979, examines the intersection of colonialism, race relations, gender and sexuality in an ingenious way. Eighteen-eighty Victorian Africa is paralleled with 1979 London. In this dark farce, a proper British family is stationed in a colonial outpost in Africa. But the wife was played by a man, the son by a woman, and the black servant by a white man. In portraying the sexual stereotypes of the age (including its rampant undercurrent of homosexuality), Churchill also skewers the sexual hypocrisies of the age, and shows the sexual ambiguities inherent in sexual stereotypes. Nearly everyone is having an illicit affair -- the husband with the next-door neighbor, the wife with the dashing adventurer, the son with the same dashing adventurer, the governess with the wife and the dashing adventurer with the husband and the servant.

The first act seems at first to be a broad farce, but it develops into something much subtler and more sinister. The same family is portrayed 25 years later -- but while 25 years have passed for them, nearly a century has passed for the rest of the world. It's now 1979 London, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. The son has a lover, the daughter is married but is experimenting with bisexuality, and the mother is leaving her husband, but they are still caught up in societal role-playing. When traditional sexual and marital models change, we still cling to the old structures. As the characters try to break free, their worlds begin to intertwine -- the characters from the first act begin to visit the ones in the second act.

It's a very intriguing play, and it caused quite a stir at the time. Another 25 years later, it seems society is still trying to break free of its old structures. The Gallery Players gave it an excellent production. Director Tom Herman is to be commended for his casting and for his sensitivity to the magnified gender roles. While a somewhat smaller stage might have enhanced the play's natural intimacy, he made excellent use of the wide space and didn't let it overpower the acting.

While the set design (Mark T. Simpson) and costume design (Jenna Rossi-Camus) were pleasing but largely simplistic, the cast was uniformly excellent.

As well they should be -- there's quite a lot of double-casting in this play, and most of the actors play vastly different roles. Mark Battle played Victorian patriarch Clive as well as a four-year-old girl; Tim Demsky played his wife Betty and his son's gay lover in the next act. Brooke Delaney played both Betty and Betty's mother; Stephanie Weyman played the governess, the sexually adventurous neighbor, and the bisexual daughter. Holly Golden played her lesbian lover and a 12-year-old boy. The list goes on and on. But the casting was not as confusing as it sounds -- in fact, each atypical casting shed new light on gender and societal roles. Battle, Demsky, and Weyman were the most versatile and most magnetic of the cast; Demsky especially was hysterical as Betty in the first act.

While Manhattanites tend to view Brooklyn as a backwater, both socially and theatrically, The Gallery Players proved that good things are afoot in the boroughs. Cloud Nine is thoroughly enjoyable, and well worth the trek.

Also with Patrick Toon and Eric Hanson.

Box Score:

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

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Copyright 2004 Jenny Sandman