1880, South Africa: The Queen’s flag flies high and proudly; Victorian roles of men and women are clearly defined; classes are correctly divided; whites rule and those of color serve; social norms are clear, and proper manners are strictly followed. Well, that is at least true until Caryl Churchill paints a bit different picture of what that supposedly blissful life is actually like just below the surface (and the skirt) in her 1979, laugh-out-loud hilarious, outrageously naughty farce, Cloud 9. In her version of Victorian colonialism where men strut about in control, the world is amok as genders are bent in all directions; race is only white, even when it is not; illicit relationships are rampant; and sexual attractions cross every possible boundary but always on the sly.
But the playwright has only begun in her satirical look at the British world, next time traveling a hundred years to the beginnings of a Thatcher era when some of the same Victorians are now in a world where women are overall stronger than men and sexual boundaries have exploded into open relationships of every sort. Custom Made Theatre Company takes the cues from Caryl Churchill and opens a Cloud 9 that sizzles in its spicy and salacious takes on relationships between and among the sexes while double casting its ensemble members often to mix their genders and orientations. Along the way, Director Allie Moss ensures that roles are often played to a ridiculously exaggerated hilt to send the farce into wildly spinning, comedic spheres.
The first act opens as the drums of restless natives that warn of an upcoming Boer War give way to a British, colonial family singing proudly “Come gather, Sons of England, come gather in pride.” The lord of the household, Clive (Evan Winet) speaks with overdone, aristocratic flourish and flair as he declares, “I am father to the natives here and father to my family so dear.” His light-voiced, giddy wife, Betty – whose eyes wander in all directions as she flutters about like a silly butterfly – is played in twinkle-toed, tongue-in-cheek drag by Mario Mazzetti. Their young son, Edward – literally bursting out of his boy-sailor outfit – clutches a doll that his father keeps taking away from him, Edward being played in gay-boy drag by Alejandra Wahl.
Edward insists he is just taking care of the doll for his baby sister, Victoria, who is actually played by a large, stuffed doll. Their nanny is Ellen (Renne Rogoff) who, by her disgusted looks toward Edward and her outright admission, clearly hates kids. Ellen switches back and forth her outfits and her role to become the neighboring widow, Mrs. Saunders, who has come to spend Christmas with the family and to escape possible trouble from the natives. Visiting also is Clive’s river-exploring friend, Harry, played with self-declared debonair by Zaya Kolia.
Watching with a look bland but telling of something seething underneath is the native servant, Joshua, a black who is actually white and who claims, “My skin is black, but oh my soul is white.” “What white men want is what I want to be,” so says Joshua who walks around threateningly with gun in hand to protect his master’s family from people he declares with no emotion “are not my tribe.”
But Caryl Churchill has just begun to create her staged salad of all kinds of fruits and nuts. Betty chases lustfully after Harry; Harry goes to the barn to have sex with Joshua; Edward reveals that he and Harry have a relationship that is not the sort young boys should be having with older men. Clive dives headfirst with tongue extended under the skirts of Mrs. Saunders as she flies into sexual ecstasy while Ellen (after her Mrs. Saunders changes outfits and roles) pines openly and with crocodile tears for Betty, who ignores her.
In this world, women live overall to worship and obey the men, whom themselves are farcically portrayed as sex-hungry, not-overly-bright buffoons. The sugary sweet Betty speaks for her sex when she says, “I am a man’s creation as you see, and what men want is what I want to be” – an admission with a wonderful double meaning when said by a woman played by a man in obvious drag. In this domain, even the servant Joshua knows men rule, with his responding to requests by his mistress Betty, “Fetch yourself; you’ve got legs under that skirt.”
People move in this world with over-the-top affect – sometimes pausing to pose in profile, sometimes overcome by emotions to flail themselves on the ground, and sometimes doing double or triple takes with the turn of a head as if in a cartoon. Caryl Churchill does not let us forget for a minute that in a world where natives are rioting, the English are only fooling themselves as they play games like a very telling afternoon of hide-and-seek.
The one person who represents the more recognizable Victorian manner is Maud, the distinctly speaking mother of Betty, played with exacting properness by Monica Cappuccini and with a voice that is high British and full of extended pauses that punctuate her speech to demonstrate her sophisticated air. As around her chaos is occurring in the nearby bushes and corners, she continues to maintain her own decorum and high airs even as others are speaking to each other of their erections and orgasms. Their total blindness to what is really happening comes to a startling and awakening conclusion as Act One closes.
The world of male dominance in the first half gives way to women who are sources of the energy of Act Two, a time in 1980 London where the more hidden, sexual combinations of the previous century are now practiced in the open and where free-love boundaries are pushed even further by women and by gay men. In a country about to be controlled by Thatcher conservatism where ‘gay’ and ‘feminism’ are words fouler than any of four-letters, the playwright opens Pandora’s Box and lets everything go wild. Gay men cruise for sex; lesbians pray to the goddess Isis; a bisexual man enters into a ménage à trois with his sister and her lover; a soft-spoken husband does all he can to satisfy sexually his wife who ignores him for an always open book while he strives to write a novel about women from the women’s point of view. Again, the world is turned upside down by the playwright with farce and satire written into every scene.
Much of the humor of Act Two comes in the way roles are once again cast and the way time is warped. While it is one hundred years later, for three of the characters, there is only a twenty-five-year difference. Edward (Mario Mazzetti, the former Betty) is now a young, gay man while his sister – who was a Raggedy-Ann-looking doll in the first act – is now the grown, very-much-alive Victoria, married to a man but about to come out as a lesbian going by the name of Vic (played by Alejandra Wahl, the former boy, Edward) and falling in love with a butch lesbian, Lin (played by Renne Rogoff, the former Ellen/Mrs. Saunders). The whimsical and flighty Betty has literally become her mother with airs sophisticated and proper to become a modern-day version of Maude, Betty’s mother of 1880 (both of course played by Monica Cappuccini).
The ambi-sexual playboy Harry becomes Martin, the women’s-lib-touting, but overall weak husband of Victoria (both played by Zaya Kolia). The mostly silent and foreboding servant Joshua (Alan Coyne) is now a park-cruising, sauna-visiting gay man, Gerry, sometime lover of the grown, effeminate Edward. Perhaps the biggest and most bizarre switch is colonial landowner Clive’s emergence in Act Two as an overgrown, squealy, prone-to-fits-and-high-drama, little girl all in pink, Cathy (both played by Evan Winet).
While the ups-and-downs, in-and-outs of Act Two are quite wild and biting in satire, Caryl Churchill’s play and the Custom Made production loses some steam in the second half, never quite capturing the edge, the hilarity, and the energy of the fast-moving, over-the-top in every way first half. The role of the gigantic-in-stature-and-mouth Cathy is especially annoying after a while and ceases to be very funny.
That said, there is still much to cause laughter up to the very end and many aspects of life where to poke jabbing holes when it comes to politics, guns, sexual mores, class differences, male dominance in society, etc. And as different as the two time periods are, the playwright seems to be telling us that people are people and are perhaps at their rawest core more similar than different – even when situations, time periods, and geographies are drastically different.
Much of the fun of the Custom Made production – beyond the excellent ensemble and directing – comes from the costumes designed by Candice Liao. From period-mimicking hats to too-tight/too-short outfits to stereotyping flannels and leathers, characters and farce are funnier thanks to what they wear. Everett Elton Bradman’s sound design helps us switch eras musically and provides atmospheric touches like far-off drums to set the scene. The lighting of Emma Satchell places us in the dappled shadows of a modern-day park and in the sun-baked regions of colonial South Africa.
Cloud 9 by its name denotes a play about happiness and bliss to the extreme. Certainly “to the extreme” is an accurate description of Caryl Churchill’s two slices of life where ‘walking on air’ happens as cultural, political, and relationship norms are blown to pieces. Custom Made Theatre Company has a heyday in presenting a farce that could easily have an Act Three that satirizes an America in the midst of a period that makes Thatcherism look almost like walking on Cloud 9.
Rating: 3.5 E
Cloud 9 continues through December 15, 2019 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).
Photo Credits: Jay Yamada