Tiny Engine Theatre Company’s production of English playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1979 comedy, Cloud 9, which completes its three-week run on June 23-25 at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, is definitely a comedy for mature audiences — and smart mature audiences at that. The farce begins in 1880 in a dwindling outpost of colonialism in Africa, where a British family is stationed with its many servants.
Definitely not for the faint of heart, Cloud 9 conjures up a series of intense circumstances that result in a terrible situation, complete with several miscast (by design) characters. There is the head of the household, Clive (played by a John Paul Middlesworth), who portrays the oversexed, white patriarch with charisma and gleeful abandon. Meanwhile, his wife, Betty, must be played by a man (an excellent Nick Popio, who really reaches new ground this is multifaceted role), struggles between her duty and her desires for another man, Harry Bagley (Josh Henderson).
There is also the servant character, a native to Africa, who — according to the playwright — must be played by a white man. The point, I assume, is to take racist colonial scars and make them obvious to white audience members in a jarring way. Clive’s daughter and son are also similarly cast — to make you think. The doll-loving son, who’s already questioning his sexuality after a pedophilic encounter with his Uncle, is played by a woman. Denver Skye Vaughn, who is making her regional debut, gives a convincing, honest, and impressive performance as this complex child.
The discomfort is strong in most of Act One, as the farce delivers blow after blow of heightened sexual situations and terrible misogynistic double standards, shame, and hatred for LGBT ideas and people, and all the male-centrisim that you could want.
All of this is to make you think about this situation, how awful it is, and how insane it is. Laurel Ullman is brilliant as both the lovelorn governess and the “Strong, independent” frontierswoman. She is nuanced and a joy to watch switch between these two ladies.
Act Two brings us 100 years forward to the 1980s. Meanwhile, the characters have only progressed one generation. The character that was a baby doll in Act One is now an older woman with children who is played by Laurel Ullman. This act is much more honest and strong for the whole cast.
Dramatist Caryl Churchill’s brilliance in the cross casting highlights how insane gender roles are and how sexuality is fluid and not to be ignored.
Josh Henderson, who is now playing a modern man, with similarities to his past character, has a brilliant and unsettling sexual monologue. It is captivating and deftly handled.
Nick Popio shines again, this time as a male character who is really a woman, unlike his previous character who was a woman played by a man. This character is paired with Noelle Barnard Azarelo’s expressive and experimental 1980s woman, and her lover, a plucky and honest woman, now played by Denver Skye Vaughn. These three create what might be the strongest moment of the play about gender. The three run off to the woods to “call out to the goddess.” This trans woman is welcomed into this feminine space playfully and beautifully, really bringing home the point and the beauty of this whole play.
The set is in the round (don’t arrive late, or you’ll have to cross the stage!), and it doesn’t add too much to the presentation, but it does allow for multiple actions.
The accents left much to be desired. Some had strong, overdone accents, while others did not even attempt British accents. The show is definitely served by British accents, old and modern, because it is coming from the U.K. as a comment on itself. While the comedy’s themes are universal, the script and its slang are not. And it is obvious that the accents are missing. The big Union Jack on the floor is also at odds with this.
Several strong performances, lots of laughs, crude and inspirational, make Cloud 9 worth your time. My recommendation is to remember it’s a farce and to bring your brain with you. Examine and allow the play to push you; it will do wonders.
SECOND OPINION: June 17th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Jeffrey Rossman: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8033; June 17th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/arts/archives/2016/06/17/theater-review-caryl-churchill-scrambles-post-colonial-roles-in-ludicrous-rewarding-farce-cloud-9 and June 8th mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/cloud-9/Event?oid=5030640; and June 14th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article83726882.html.
Tiny Engine Theatre Company presents CLOUD 9 at 8 p.m. June 23-25 at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina 27705.
TICKETS: $17 ($12 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).
Cloud 9 (1979 English and 1981 Off-Broadway comedy): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1179/cloud-9 (Samuel French, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/614 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_9_%28play%29 (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://denvercenter.org/docs/default-source/Show-Study-Guides/all-study-guides/cloud-9–2.pdf?sfvrsn=4 (Denver Center for the Performing Arts).
Caryl Churchill (English playwright): https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/caryl-churchill (British Council | Literature bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/5053 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caryl_Churchill (Wikipedia).
Paul Sapp (Durham, NC director): https://www.facebook.com/paul.sapp.71 (Facebook page).
Diana Cameron McQueen of Raleigh, NC is an actor working in the Triangle area and beyond. She is a lifelong theatergoer, which she credits as her real theater education. She is an alumna of Enloe High School in Raleigh and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). After returning to Raleigh in 2012, she debuted as an actor in the area. McQueen is mostly known for her performances as Vanda in Venus in Fur (2015) at Raleigh Little Theatre and as Queen Elizabeth I in The Lost Colony (2013-14) in Manteo, NC; and she most recently starred as Louise in The Underpants at Theatre in the Park in Raleigh. She’s passionate about and advocates for diversity and representation in media. McQueen lives with two very lovable cats, Odin and Aurelia. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.