Cast of Cloud 9

Written by Caryl Churchill

Directed by Brandon Walker & Erin Corcoran

In today’s identity-obsessed culture, it’s not hard to see why a young theater company would want ot revisit Caryl Churchill’s gender-fluid meditation on the decline of the British Empire. By the same token, a lot has changed since 1979, and theater that was considered groundbreaking three decades ago can sometimes date poorly. As this spirited, if uneven revival shows, CLOUD 9 may have lost some of its shock value, but the dramatic core of the piece, skillfully built by Churchill, still holds up.

The evening gets off to an awkward start as we are introduced to Clive (Brandon Walker) and his wife Betty (male actor Ari Veach), a British couple living in colonial Africa in 1880. The early scenes are played with a good deal of shrillness and bombast (In! Which! Words! And! Even! Fragments! Of! Words! Are! E! Nunci! Ated! Very! Loudly!). The intention seems to be to underscore a modernist “V effect”. But much of the action feels more like Carol Burnett than Brecht. Once the story gets underway, however, the dark comedy begins to land with more nuance and an intriguing domestic power dynamic emerges. Matriarch Maud (Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia), believes in strictly the traditional roles for women. Clive and Betty’s son Edward (female actor Erin Corcoran), likes to steal dolls from his little sister Victoria (played by a styrofoam head) and fails to fulfill his father’s many expectations. African servant Joshua (white actor Bill McAndrews), acts servile but is constantly up to mischief. Clive flirts flagrantly with Mrs. Saunders (Jane Kahler), a visiting widow. Sexual tensions come to a head when explorer Harry Bagley (Robin Friend Stift), returns to “civilization” after months in the wilderness. Harry has trysts with Joshua and Edward, and tries with Clive as well. Appalled at his friend’s proclivities, Clive tries to fix the situation by marrying Harry off to governess Ellen (Kahler) a lesbian. As if the erotic mayhem weren’t enough, Churchill throws in an African rebellion, which, despite Clive’s violent efforts to squelch it, pulls all the characters into its vortex.

The second act is considerably more subdued, and the actors wear their roles with greater ease. In yet another surreal trope, the characters have only aged 25 years, but the world is a century older. Knocking around London, everyone seems to be searching for the New Normal. Gone are the seen-and-not-heard strictures of Victorian child rearing. If anything, little Cathy (Walker) controls her mum Lin (Corcoran) and not the other way round. Victoria (Schlegel-Mejia) loves Lin but isn’t quite sure how a same-sex marriage works. Edward (Stift) is clear that he wants to play the wifely role in his relationship with Gerry (Veach). But Gerry’s is too busy hooking up with random blokes to settle down. Betty’s husband Martin, struggling to keep pace with a changing culture, talks bluntly about sex and professes to be writing “a women’s novel, from the woman’s point of view.” All that remains of the old imperial system is the conflict in Northern Ireland, in which Lin’s brother, a soldier in the British army, loses his life. The play becomes a series of vignettes and monologues, some with an appealing lyricism which provides a pleasant counterbalance to the lustier first act. Viewed from a modern perspective, the characters (and perhaps the playwright) seem both touchingly innocent and maddeningly naive. They’re living on the cusp of Thatcher-Reagan era, AIDS crisis, and the emergence of a new world order. Like their Colonialist forebears, they don’t see the writing in the wall.

CLOUD 9 continues through July 16 at the Access Theatre, 380 Broadway, New York, New York. Tickets: