For those going unprepared to Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud
Nine,” a new production by The Falcon’s Eye, Folsom Lake College’s
Theatre Department, a glance at the program could be disorienting. Some
characters seem to be played by actors of the wrong gender, Act II takes
place 100 years after Act I, but most of the same characters are still
around and seem to have aged only 25 years. And the actors have switched
roles, and often sexes, between the two acts. Certainly we’re in for a
“different” theatre experience.
Act I takes place in Colonial Africa in 1880. Clive, a
colonial administrator, and his wife Betty are worried because the
natives are restless. Act II is in London in 1980. Clive is no longer in
the picture, but his wife and her young daughter Victoria and son Edward
are facing the sexual ambiguities of the modern world.
It would be pointless to try to recount the plots of
either act, because the playwright’s focus is on the wildly exaggerated
actions—largely dealing with lust in both acts—of the oversized
characters. And it is the full-out, over-the-top performances by the
perfect cast that keep the audience enthralled from start to finish.
Tom Rhatigan’s Clive in Act I is the stereotype of the
colonial chauvinist. He knows what’s best for England and dominates his
wife and children, trying to beat his son Edward out of his desire to
play with his sister’s doll. His transformation in Act II, to the
somersaulting and swinging five-year-old Cathy, daughter of the
neighborhood lesbian, must be seen to be believed.
The family’s black servant Joshua is usually played by
a white actor. Director Christine Nicholson had the brilliant idea to
cast a black actor, Anthony M. Person, but to begin the play with his
face almost entirely covered with stark white makeup. He sings “My skin
is black but oh my soul is white,” but as the act progresses the white
makeup erodes until he is entirely black by its close. In Act II Person
is a gay hustler, and he is outstanding in both roles.
The children of the family include his son Edward,
played in Act I by Katherine Peters, who transforms into the
sexually-enthusiastic daughter Victoria in Act II. (Victoria in Act I is
performed flawlessly by a rag doll). Steve Ibarra is male in both acts,
first as the explorer Harry Bagley, who mainly explores the bodies of
every person, whatever sex or age, in the house, but morphs into the
somewhat confused husband of Victoria in Act II.
Ms. Afton Parker plays two sides of female sexuality
in Act I, both the repressed lesbian maid and Clive’s seemingly uptight
neighbor who, he claims, keeps him aroused nearly twenty-four hours a
day. In Act II she has become middle-aged Betty. Cynthia Hawes, Betty’s
mother in Act I, is the very lusty lesbian Lin in Act II.
The crowning performances in the show, for me, are
those of Michael Coleman. He is Clive’s wife Betty in Act I, and rather
than take the easy road of playing a man in drag for laughs, he simply
is this tall, proud, sensitive wife and mother. Seeing his performance
without reading the program, audience members would probably only notice
that the director chose a very tall woman to play the role. This is
character acting at its finest. Coleman is also excellent in Act II as
Betty and Clive’s son Edward, but when he returns at play’s end as the
Victorian Betty confronting the 1980’s Betty the moment is quite moving.
If you don’t enjoy raunchy humor, which embraces not
just straight and gay lust but pedophilia and a threesome with a hint of
incest as well, if bad language and explicit actions on stage offend
you, you should probably miss this show, as it is obscene from start to
finish. But if over-the-top humor and brilliant ensemble acting are your
cup of tea, leave the kids at home and enjoy two hours of stage madness
at Harris Center which you’ll be thinking about for weeks.