Caryl Churchill’s landmark 1979 play Cloud 9 examines how instantiated power exerts itself along lines of global politics, gender, race, and sexuality, among others, and it does so with a sly wink to the ridiculousness of efforts to keep those power structures in place. It is a dense and challenging play that nonetheless experiments playfully with theatricality: men and women play opposite genders; adults play children; a white man plays a black man; all of which underscores Churchill’s critique of oppressive and abusive power. At once bracing and spirited, Cloud 9 seems sometimes to offer a biting analysis of social structures and at others to be simply poking fun at the silliness of those structures.
The play thus presents a trove of challenges to the company taking it on, tests which New York’s Seeing Place Theater encounter by doubling down on Churchill’s pension for farce. Under the co-direction of Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican, the company’s enthusiastic production at Tribeca’s Access Theater is at times giddy in its playfulness. While the production occasionally loses focus in the interest of accentuating theatricality””a preshow curtain speech telling the audience what the play is about and encouraging cheers, laughter, and boos, for instance, seems forced, and the decision to have a performer read stage directions is a clunky attempt at Brechtian alienation””on the whole The Seeing Place meets the challenges Churchill lays out by emphasizing the at times blinding absurdity of power and oppression.
Churchill’s first act takes place in 1880 in a British colony in Africa at the height of Victorian imperialism. Clive (Brandon Walker) is a stiff-chinned patriot who considers his duty of shepherding the Queen’s empire further into Africa while raising a proper family in a proper home a supreme calling. His buttoned-up and suppressed wife Betty (Ari Veach), children Edward (Erin Cronican) and Victoria (played by a doll), and African servant Joshua (played by the white Bill McAndrews) hang on his word as he endeavors to bring order to all he touches. Of course, Churchill undercuts these efforts immediately by engaging nearly every member of the cast in an illicit sexual affair, stripping back Clive’s ideal order to show its irrepressible untidiness. Walker offers a fine portrait of Clive as both dedicated to his principles and reprehensible in his treatment to those who follow him. Particularly striking in this act are Veach as Betty and McAndrews as Joshua: Churchill seems to be criticizing the capriciousness of power by suggesting that Clive would never treat a man or a white person the way he treats his wife and black servant, and the performances of Veach and McAndrews capture that hypocrisy viscerally.
Act Two moves forward to London in 1979, but in a distinctive Churchill disregard for realism, only 25 years have passed for the characters. Edward (Robin Friend Stift) is now a frustrated adult homosexual, Betty (Jane Kahler) is leaving Clive, and Victoria (Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia) wonders about her own sexual identity and personal ambitions while raising Cathy (Brandon Walker, moving from pater familias to petulant toddler in an unsubtle commentary on the propriety of Clive’s power). The echoes of Act One reverberate throughout the play’s second part, as characters struggle to reconcile their selves with the legacy of their pasts. Kahler’s Betty and Schlegel-Mejia’s Victoria are particularly strong in this act as the characters who are most bewildered about their own identities.
Ultimately this is a play about that confused search for identity””sexual, gendered, national, and so on””and even if this long production occasionally drags and at times imposes its concept without the most nuance, The Seeing Place has a great deal of fun examining the instability of society’s pre-fabricated identities.