KPFA theatre critic Richard Wolinsky reviews “Cloud 9” by Caryl Churchill, at Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco through December 15, 2019.
Text of review:
During the Victorian era, the tyranny of colonialism went unchecked, as did sexual and gender-based oppression. Straitjacketed in their roles through patriarchy, the power disparity between men and women paralleled the relationship of whites and people of color all through the British empire.
Those connections are explored, deconstructed and reconstructed in Caryl Churchill’s now classic play from 1979, Cloud 9, performed with gusto and bravado, and directed by Allie Moss, at Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco through December 15th.
The play functions in two symmetrical parts: Act One takes place during the 19th century, in Africa, and presents itself as comedy. To show how women’s roles were determined by men, the wife of Clive, the colonial administrator, is played by a man, and her young son by a woman, and to show the parallel with colonialism, their black manservant is played by a white man. The sexual repression is revealed through clandestine relationships played as a bedroom farce.
Act Two upends all that. These characters have returned to England after twenty five years, though the setting is now a hundred years later. Clive is gone, his wife is played by a woman, and a little girl by a man. The young son, now an adult, is gay, his sister, a baby in Act One, is an adult, and bisexual. Farce has been replaced by realism, as women and out gay men take center stage. The transition is startling but the themes remain the same.
This production of Cloud 9 is anchored by an excellent cast, adept at changing character and even costume with literally seconds to spare. It’s impossible to single out any particular actor: all work within a tightly woven ensemble.
Churchill’s strength in this is to weave disparate scenes, elements, characters and incidents that don’t easily fit together into a solid cohesive whole. The counter-casting, the illogical time shift and even the intermingling of characters from both acts all contribute to a sense of dislocation that slowly synthesizes. It’s a tightrope walk that works from beginning to end, and Custom Made’s production does this masterpiece justice.
Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill, directed by Allie Moss, plays at Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco through December 15th. For more information, go to custommade.org. I’m Richard Wolinsky on Bay Area theatre for KPFA.