Friday, September 25, 2015

Cloud Nine *** (performance) / zero stars (audience comfort)

There were two problems interfering with my enjoyment of the Atlantic Theater revival of this groundbreaking Caryl Churchill play from 1979 now previewing at the Linda Gross Theater. First, my fond memories of the 1981 production at the Theater de Lys set the bar extremely high. Secondly, the seating is terribly uncomfortable. In principle, I have no objection to the theater’s decision to spend what was no doubt a large amount of money to pull out all the seats and erect stadium-like bleachers to provide theater in the round. Director James Macdonald had great success with that formula when he staged “Cock” three years ago. At least this time the seats are padded and have backs. However, in order to preserve the usual number of seats, they skimped on the space between rows. If you are of average height or taller, there is simply not enough legroom and there are no seat arms for stability. It is hard to concentrate on the actors when you are struggling to find room for your legs. It’s a shame, because both the play and the production have their merits. Churchill has devised a complicated scheme whereby the first act takes place in colonial Africa in 1880, the second act takes place in London a century later, but the three characters carried over from the first act have only aged 25 years and are played by different actors. Clive (Clarke Thorell) is an English functionary in a colonial outpost. His wife Betty (Chris Perfetti) [who the playwright specifies must be played by a man], their effeminate son Edward (Brooke Bloom) [specified to be played by a woman], their daughter Victoria [played by a doll], the children’s governess Ellen (Izzie Steele) and Betty’s mother Maud (Lucy Owen) are soon joined by an explorer friend Harry Bagley (John Sanders).The family’s African manservant is Joshua (Sean Dugan) [specified to be played by a Caucasian]. Their neighbor Mrs. Saunders [specified to be played by the same actress who plays Ellen] moves in when she becomes alarmed at the prospect of native unrest. An age of sexual repression doesn’t slow down this crowd much. We soon learn of pederasty, homosexuality, lesbianism, interracial sex and adultery. The style of the first act is heightened and a bit arch. In the second, much more naturalistic act, we once again meet Betty (now played by Bloom), Edward (now played by Perfetti) and Victoria (now played by  Owen). New are Gerry (Dugan), Edward’s promiscuous roommate; Lin (Steele), a single mother and lesbian with a free-spirited young daughter Cathy (Thorell) [specified to be played by a man] and Victoria’s husband Martin (Sanders). There is a brief appearance by Lin’s brother Bill (Thorell again). For an age of sexual liberation, the playwright adds incest and orgies to the activities of act one. Liberation has not brought much happiness to the characters, except for Betty who finally manages to find a path forward. I remember the play’s final moment where she achieves self-integration as magical in 1981. It didn’t have that effect on me this time. I could not help feeling nostalgic for the time in which act two is set — just before AIDS put a damper on sexual liberation and the worst international crisis was conflict in Northern Ireland. The actors are fine without exception and it is fun to see them change roles. Credit — or blame —Dane Laffrey for the set. Gabriel Berry’s costumes are fine. Dialect coach Ben Furey has done his job well. It is good that Atlantic has revived the play that brought Caryl Churchill to major attention. If only they had given some thought to audience comfort. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including intermission.

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