Last weekend, Tiny Engine Theatre Company — co-founded by Laurel Ullman and Paul Sapp — wrapped up its second calendar year of productions with English playwright Caryl Churchill’s rarely produced 1979 treatise on identity politics, Cloud 9. The apparent reason that Cloud 9 is performed so rarely is that it can be a little difficult to swallow. It’s a strangely shaped pill that doesn’t much look or taste like any other.
I argue that this is precisely why the play should be produced more frequently outside of metropolitan areas. Over the last five years, notable productions have been mounted in New York City and Los Angeles, but very few elsewhere. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro produced it in 2004.
To summarize this play is not difficult to do, if you’re just listing what happens. However, the meat of this play is not to be found in its plot. It’s to be found in its meaning. It’s a thinking-person’s play — something not easily sold to the crowds that find a matinee of Grease to be a transformative cultural experience. At least, they have white zinfandel to help them through the intense bits.
Director Paul Sapp does not shy away from the politics of Cloud 9, nor could he. The race and gender politics of this play come screaming out into the audience and punch you right in the face. That’s what makes the show so affecting and provocative.
The best thing about this production really fell into Sapp’s lap, you could say. This cast of actors is extraordinary. Every person in the cast is an experienced local performer, and their resumes are as diverse as the characters in this play. This breadth of experience and a tremendous intelligence make this ensemble the kind that dreams are made of.
Not only did Sapp cast the right people, but he also made some bold adjustments to the typical role-doubling structure of the piece, opting to put the right actor in the right two (or more) roles rather than blindly prescribing to the way most productions handle the Act One vs. Act Two doubling situation. The atypical casting of an African-American actor in this play encourages the audience to dig even deeper philosophically than the play originally intended, and it pays off.
Noelle Barnard Azarelo plays Maud the venomous mother-in-law and Victoria (played by a doll in Act One) the newly uninhibited lesbian. Azarelo captures Maud’s ferocity with perfect vocal and physical expression — this type of character is one at which Azarelo has always excelled. But it is during her turn as Victoria that she does some of her most nuanced work to date. She takes Victoria on a complex journey from vulnerable and reticent to undaunted and liberated.
Christopher Bynum, a highly skilled comic actor, takes a much more dramatic turn as African native and family servant Joshua. He manages to stay on the right side of this character, which can easily become a mockery if an overly Africanized accent is taken. Bynum’s Joshua manages to be believable as an African man taking on the characteristics of his employer’s family, and delivers a one-two punch when the audience realizes the level to which his true heritage affects his perspective on the brutality of Colonialism.
Bynum’s portrayal of Act Two’s five-year-old Cathy is at once humorous and deeply touching. He finds real honesty here, and plays Cathy as a real kid, not as a character in an Saturday Night Live sketch. His Act Two appearance as Lin’s dead army brother further displays his versatility.
Josh Henderson finds the naiveté and devotion within Harry Bagley, and his moments with the young Edward are at once properly discomfiting and tender. But Henderson really gets to shine while playing Gerry in Act Two. He has the majority of Caryl Churchill’s rare instances of soliloquy in the play and easily holds his audience captive.
John Paul Middlesworth is perfectly cast as Clive, the patriarch and in-house military strategist who takes it upon himself to put everyone in their proper place. Somehow, Middlesworth makes this intolerable character tolerable — at times, even charming. There is an absence of menace here that makes Act One really work. We aren’t given a moustache-twirling villain who beats women and children mercilessly — we have a more dimensional man to analyze and appreciate.
Sapp opted not to have Middlesworth play five-year-old Cathy (as is typically done), but rather assigned him the role of the sexist, egotistical Martin. He and Azarelo, with whom he has worked before, find a solid rhythm with these characters; and they banter effectively throughout Act Two.
Nick Popio was assigned, perhaps, the play’s most defining bit of casting: as Betty, the Victorian wife, in Act One and Edward, her bisexual son, in Act Two. Most photos you find of productions of Cloud 9 show the actor playing Betty in full drag and in a pose of highest melodrama. Popio avoids the clichés here. He’s not giving us a Monty Python character, or even going out of his way to appear particularly feminine. His Betty is a real person.
The fact that Popio is a male actor quickly becomes irrelevant; and we appreciate Betty for all her strengths and weaknesses, without regard to the actor’s gender. This might be the show’s greatest acting achievement: we forgot it was a man. Popio maintains this honesty in Act Two as Edward’s internal and external battles rage on with real emotional output.
Laurel Ullman takes on three characters: ditzy governess Ellen and the stern widow Mrs. Saunders (both in Act One), followed by the older version of Popio’s Betty in Act Two. Ullman’s Act Two Betty doesn’t have the same fears as Act One. The character’s growth is evident in Ullman’s nuanced performance, and she manages to make all three of her characters some of the most distinct and well-formed of the evening. Her vocal embodiment of her characters is especially notable. The atypical doubling used here by Sapp was certainly a wise choice.
Denver Skye Vaughn gives an enigmatic performance as Act One’s young, gender non-conforming Edward and Act Two’s courageous lesbian revolutionary, Lin. Vaughn’s small stature contrasts directly with her enormous emotional range and physical characterization. Her age in Act One is such a mystery that young Edward himself appears almost ageless.
As Edward is dragged kicking and screaming by everyone toward the Male end of the gender spectrum, Vaughn adeptly reasserts him closer to the middle. It is this counteraction that gives Act One a lot of its meat, and certainly gives John Paul Middlesworth much to play against.
Though Denver Skye Vaughn plays her with honesty and without irony, Caryl Churchill’s Lin is the play’s most problematic character, functioning as a Straw Feminist: the butch, militant, hyper-lesbian kind. It is the budding relationship between Lin and Victoria that, through no fault of the actors, feels dated and trite. In 1979, this would have been provocative material. Alas, it is no longer.
Although Durham’s Common Ground Theatre can be difficult to light, especially when trying to isolate actors on either side of the stage, Brett Stegall grounds us firmly in time and place with effective transitions. John Paul Middlesworth’s set does its job well: it serves as a limitless setting for action and doesn’t get in the play’s way.
The inclusion of the Union Jack on stage may be the only thing British remaining in the piece, given that director Paul Sapp chose to forgo the use of British accents. The reason for that decision is mysterious and somewhat baffling, given the accomplished nature of the individuals cast. I’m sure they could have pulled off convincing British accents. Removing that element may seem like a small thing, but the Britishness of Caryl Churchill’s play is almost entirely absent without the cadence of Colonial or modern British speech.
Additionally, seating on both sides of the platform proved unnecessary. On Friday night, the audience sat solely on one side anyway; and I noticed that almost no attention would have been given to the opposing viewers anyway, based on the staging.
Ella Brooks’ stunning, detailed costuming does 90 percent of the work in setting our place and time, especially with 1980 London in Act Two. The play’s audio design, including period music and outdoor sound effects, is appropriately placed and mixed.
Alas, this show has closed. Those of you who were able to see it were extremely lucky, even if you were a bit confused. I so wish I could see this one again.
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. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the June 18th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/06/strong-performances-and-lots-of-laughs-make-tiny-engine-theatre-companys-cloud-9-worthwhile/.)
CLOUD 9 (Tiny Engine Theatre Company, June 10-12, 16-19, and 23-25 at Common Ground Theatre in Durham).
SHOW: http://www.tinyenginetheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/events/1570289269936689/, and http://www.cgtheatre.com/#!ticketsandinfo/p5unm.
PRESENTER: http://www.tinyenginetheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/tinyenginetheatre, and https://twitter.com/tinyengine1.
VENUE: http://www.cgtheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/cgtheatre, and https://twitter.com/CGTheatre919.
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): http://www.tinyenginetheatre.com/about.html (Tiny Engine Theatre Company bio) and https://www.facebook.com/paul.sapp.71 (Facebook page).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.