Friday, March 26, 2010

Cloud Nine

Caryl Churchill’s thought provoking gender bender ‘CLOUD 9’ well performed by CWRU/CPHMFAAP

That theatre group with the impossible name is at it again. The Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts Acting Program is presenting Caryl Churchill’s ‘CLOUD NINE,’ a play about colonial and gender oppression in CPH’s Brooks Theatre. The play itself is a thought provoking, often humorous, often psychological mind twister, as is the company’s moniker. Why, oh why, can’t the program’s powers that be come up with an insignia that isn’t mind and mouth rattling?

‘CLOUD NINE’ is a two-act play which was first performed in 1979. It is as relevant today as it was back then. Yes, colonialism and western world feminine gender suppression are not as clear in the present time. However, inequality for homosexuals, opposition to equal rights for all, verbal and physical aggression by the older white males in the United States who are afraid they are loosing control of “their country,” female “inferiority” in the Muslim world, and resistance to a flat world concept, are still present.

The play uses melodrama and controversial portrayals of sexuality and obscene language to establish a parallel between colonial and sexual oppression. It is filled with incongruity and “shock” language to convey Churchill's political message about accepting people who are different and not dominating them or forcing them into particular roles.

Churchill has stated that during the development of ‘CLOUD NINE,’ she was influenced by Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Millett’s book was the bible for the women’s movement. It awakened many American and European women to the nature of the patriarchal society in which they lived.

Fanon’s book explained the feelings of dependency and inadequacy that Black people experience in a White world. This is well brought out in ‘CLOUD NINE,’ through the character of Joshua, the Black servant, who has chosen to “turn white” rather than disappear. Those who choose the opposite are either flogged or run the risk of being the victims of punitive raids by British soldiers, as their lives are considered of no importance. Joshua’s words, “My skin is black but oh my soul is white” are an allusion to “The Little Black Boy,” a poem by William Blake.

The two acts of the play form a contrapuntal structure. Act 1 is set in British colonial Africa in Victorian times, and Act 2 is set in a London park in 1979. Interestingly, each actor plays one role in Act 1 and a different role in Act 2, often of another gender.
Churchill’s creative approach makes it necessary for the viewer to make a mental switch from seeing a rag doll “child” in the first act being portrayed by a real adult in the second act, and a white male with an accent who in the first act is a Black male servant, playing a female child in the second act. It’s all part of Churchill’s well-honed attempt to make the story present-day relevant and not an illusion of “then” and “them.”

The CWRU/CPHMFAAP’s production, under the creative directorial eye of Ron Wilson, is excellent. From the creative pop modern art set of Jill Davis, to Michael Boll’s insightful lighting, to Tiffany Goff’s music, to the clear development of each character, the entire production works. The intimate Brooks Theatre adds immediate presence to the message…you can’t escape from being involved.

The entire cast is excellent. Special performances include Andrew Gorell’s interpretation of Betty, the mistress of the African plantation. Gorell, does not play the role as a cross dresser, but as a “real” woman. Yan Tual’s use of his natural accent adds an interesting dimension of white man playing Black man in the first act, while his transformation to a female child in the second act is startling considering his over six-foot height. Kelli Ruttle’s transformation from first act nanny to second act recently divorced mother, in search of who she really is, is excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘CLOUD 9’ is a thought provoking play that gets an excellent production by the ill-named CWRU/CPH acting program.