“Act one takes place in a British colony in Africa in Victorian times. Act two takes place in London in 1979. But for the characters it is 25 years later.” This information, provided in the “time and place” section of the playbill for Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, which opens this weekend at the Antaeus Theatre Company, tells you basically everything you need to know about this deeply satirical and complicated play.
Cloud 9 was first written and produced in London in the late 1970s, and features an ensemble of 7 actors and actresses who play a total of 14 characters across the two acts. The casting is intentionally color-blind, age-blind, and gender-blind—men play women and vice versa, adults play children, and characters who appear in both acts are played by a different actor in each. The central theme of the play is power, and the effects gender, age, sexuality, and race have on it. The two settings specifically reflect these themes in very different ways—in the 19th century British colony in Africa, white men have all of the power. In 1970s London, women and LGBT people aregrowing into their own power and becoming more prominent and accepted in society. The play is clearly cast the way it is to drive home the message that people are not always who they appear to be or who society sees them as, and the unique choices add to the humor of the darkly funny piece.
As with all Antaeus productions, the acting was truly first rate. All of their productions are partner cast, and the “Blighters” cast I saw opening weekend featured Bo Foxworth, Bill Brochtrup, Deborah Puette, Liza de Weerd, Abigail Marks, David DeSantos, and Chad Borden. The versatility required to play multiple, vastly different characters is impressive, and the cast rose to the occasion beautifully. Casey Stangl’s direction, as well as Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s scenic design, were blessedly simple—the plot and characters were complicated enough, and it was a wise choice to let them speak for themselves without unnecessary bells and whistles.
Churchill’s script is certainly very funny, shockingly so at times. The play does not shy away from uncouth humor, obscene sexual references, or dark themes. While some of the audience’s laughter certainly seemed to stem a bit from discomfort, perhaps as if they were a little ashamed of themselves for finding certain moments humorous, it was laughter nonetheless.
The press release boasts that Cloud 9 features “one of the most convoluted dramatic structures in contemporary theater.” I am a bit unclear as to if that is supposed to be a selling point, but for me, it definitely was not. I was on board with the unusual casting, but I am a far too logical person to let an intentionally nonsensical time jump slide. I spent most of act two trying to remember who all of the characters were in relation to one another, which took me out of the action and distracted from the more significant statements the show was trying to make. I have since created a new narrative for myself in which the characters who appear in both acts are simply time travelers. When this makes more sense than the truth, there’s a problem. Yes, I get that it’s satire. It’s not supposed to make logical sense, and some theatergoers may be able to easily look past that, but I am not one of them.
I don’t really have a solution for this, aside from completely changing the structure of the show, so I think non-traditional timelines are just not for me. That being said, many of the themes covered in Cloud 9 still resonate today, perhaps more than they should, and I have always found that the talent and production value involved in Antaeus productions is able to rise above plays that I don’t particularly care for as written. While I certainly didn’t walk away from this one on cloud 9, so to speak, if you’re looking for some laughs and fantastic acting, you will find plenty to enjoy.
Cloud 9 runs through April 24th at North Hollywood’s Antaeus Theater. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings as well as Saturday and Sunday matinees. Tickets range from $30-34 and can be purchased at www.Antaeus.org. Antaeus is also currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for their move into a new and improved home in Glendale, which will feature an 88-seat main stage (nearly twice the size of the current North Hollywood theater) as well as a 45-seat convertible blackbox theater. To learn how you can help and check out some of the fantastic rewards available for backers, click here.