Author: Caryl Churchill
Date attended: 4 August 2011
Venue: Erickson Theatre (Strawberry Theatre Workshop)
Director: Nick Garrison
The Churchill-ophile that I am, I want to say that Caryl Churchill’s work always has relevance, but seeing Cloud 9 in Seattle I realized that for some audiences it presents nothing new. Homosexual sex and questioning gender identity are not revelations for this city. The audience that would have been scandalized in the late 70s by a play talking so openly about the oppression of women and displaying homosexual sex, is now replaced by an audience that has been there, done that. Of course, the extreme oppression of women expressed by the Victorian setting in the first act still exists in many areas of the country, but this notion almost seems foreign to a Seattle audience. Had this play been produced in Tennessee (my home state), or even in Ellensburg there would have been a much different reaction and more than likely, a protest.
That being said, the play makes much more sense when actually witnessing it as opposed to reading it. I read it several times before seeing it for the first time in college, and then read it again recently before seeing it at the Erickson Theatre. Churchill’s work is complex and needs the bodies onstage to fully represent the ideas with which she works (especially because it’s much easier to remember which characters are played by different races or genders when you can look at them). However, of the two productions I’ve seen neither felt vital. That’s not to say that they weren’t well performed, directed, designed, etc., but that there are so many moments Churchill wrote to strike a specific chord with her audience in the 70s that fail to resonate now.
But, because there was an aesthetic distance between the stage and the audience I feel that as a whole they approached the piece from a much more analytical mindset, which alone stands reason to continue producing Cloud 9. (Plus, Caryl Churchill is a goddess.)
What’s happening in the work thematically?
At its core (and universally stated in every review of the play ever written) the play is about gender politics. In the first act, all of the characters are represented in the way that the patriarch of the family, Clive, sees them. His wife, Betty, is actually an effeminate man. Betty’s lines in the opening song say that she’s a man’s creation, and that she strives to always be what Clive wants in a wife. His son, Edward, (who is effeminate and homosexual) is played by a girl who’s desperately trying to live up to the masculine idea imposed upon him by his father, but really just wants to play with dolls and have sex with his uncle. His daughter, Victoria, is represented by a doll and has no agency whatsoever in the first act because she is inanimate. Clive’s servant, Joshua is played by a white man though it’s stated repeatedly that he is a native of the African region. The freest woman in the first act is Mrs. Saunders, a widow, who dominates Clive, questions the leadership of the house, and could be characterized in no other terms than fierce. She provides a much needed balance to the rest of the female cast in the first act because she is the only woman with virago inclinations.
Gender politics is further explored in the various sex acts that occur in the first act, including the lover’s tryst of Harry Bagley and Betty, inappropriate love of Edward (who is nine) and Harry Bagley, casual intercourse of Joshua and Harry Bagley, Harry Bagley jumping Clive in an attempt to have sex, raw sex of Mrs. Saunders and Clive, and Ellen’s unrequited love toward Betty. (Harry Bagley is a man’s man who doesn’t fit into that role entirely as seen by how many pairs he’s a part of in the previous sentence.)
Many papers have been written about all of the elements explored in the play, and as I am not currently writing one on the subject of Cloud 9 I’ll refrain from laying out the specific details of other themes in the work to try to keep this entry short and readable.
What moments of this production encapsulate the story?
- Betty’s monologue about learning to enjoy masturbation after leaving her husband is a long favorite of mine and so easy to ruin, but this moment was a standout
- The ensemble singing the song “Cloud 9” in their own spaces took a brave chance that paid off
- Mrs. Saunders and Clive having sex
- Joshua’s reactions to his family dying, and the subsequent raising of his gun to shoot his master
Were there moments of disunity, or areas in which the story-telling deviated from the apparent desired direction? (apparent in this case meaning the direction as it appeared to this member of the audience)
The invoking of the goddess (which is one of my favorite scenes) when Lin’s dead brother appears and speaks to her feels like it belongs in another play. In a similar vein, Gerry’s monologue about a quickie in the Underground seems unnecessary even when reading it because it offers no information that we haven’t already assumed about his character. Many of the break the fourth-wall moments don’t seem to work in a cohesive way.
The shortcomings of the production stem from an imperfect script. Though the scenes work fine on their own, they risk preciousness or awkward giggles and generally create a disjointed feel in the second act.