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A CurtainUp DC Review
Act I takes place in Africa when much of that continent was shown on maps and globes in pink, symbolic of the Empire amassed by Great Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria who died in 1901. Many of those countries remained under British rule for another half-century as did the imperious attitude of the colonial civil service towards "the natives," women, gays, "not us."
Act II is set in 1979, swinging London and all that as rebellion against the repression and hypocrisy of Victorian times was taking hold. Theatres and cinemas no longer played "God Save the Queen/King" at the beginning or ending of a performance. The Empire, the Commonwealth and the arrogance that went with it was out or at least on its way out.
The third element of time that surely persists in the minds of today's audiences is how much has changed in the intervening years ... and how much hasn't. But the shock value of Churchill's satire is dissipated, partially because time has led to acceptance of differences in gender.
If Cloud 9 no longer shocks why revive it? Because it is a brilliant satire, very well written, particularly the first act. After a rousing rendition of a patriotic anthem, sung against a backdrop that shows Queen Victoria, framed by a 19th-century style proscenium arch, Act 1, gets rolling with a cast that transcends gender and race.
An African-American plays a white mother, a white plays an African servant, a girl plays a boy and so on. Director Michael Kahn is graced with a pitch-perfect cast and they in turn are fortunate to work for a director who brings to them a deep understanding of the text and a sharp sense of humor. Though this is an finely tuned ensemble the greatest presence is Holly Twyford in three (count 'em) roles: Ellen, the governess; Mrs. Saunders, a randy widow and neighbor; and, in Act 2, Betty, now rid of her husband, who is on the verge of self-discovery, early feminism and independence.
John Scherer is excellent as Clive who knows how to govern and bully while remaining oblivious to the restlessness of the natives. In the second act, he is very endearing as the sensitive gay, who would like to be a good wife to his partner.
What a work-out (and showcase for their skills) this play is for actors, as they play opposites. The whippet thin Wyatt Fenner gives a fine performance as the first Act's Betty, Clive's put-upon bored housewife and in the second act a young gay man who likes to roam. Philippe Bowgen, the first act's not-so-faithful servant, is transformed in the second act to a bratty kid.
Luciana Stecconi's set is simple except for the elaborate proscenium arch that frames the stage. It is reminiscent of a photo frame — an artifact that encases a moment in time. Frank Labovitz's costumes, from the corseted dresses with bustles (somewhat exaggerated) in Act 1, to Act 2's fuddy-duddy cape and pillbox hat, speak volumes about the eras Churchill is taking to task. Christopher Baine is responsible for the energetic '70's rock and roll which gets the second act off to a loud start.
While Cloud 9 may not be everyone's cup of tea, the audience with whom I saw the show were sophisticated and savvy enough to get the points and the jokes. They had a great time and so did I.
To read about another recent revival of Churchill's play at New York's Atlantic theater go here .
Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Michael Kahn
Cast: John Scherer (Clive, Edward); Wyatt Fenner (Betty, Gerry); Philippe Bowgen (Joshua, Cathy); Holly Twyford (Ellen, Mrs. Saunders, Betty); Joy Jones (Maude, Lin); Laura C. Harris (Edward, Victoria); Christian Pedersen (Harry Bagley, Martin.)
Set Design by Luciana Stecconi
Costume Design by Frank Labovitz
Lighting Design by Peter West
Sound Design by Christopher Baine
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one short intermission.Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC; 202-332-3300;studiotheatre.org; tickets start at $52; September 7 to October 16, 2016.
Review by Susan Davidson based on September 11, 2016 matinee performance.
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