note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Beverly Creasey
As the Brits would say, CLOUD NINE (at the Cambridge YMCA Theatre Space thru Nov. 18) is getting a ripping production from The Longwood Players. Caryl Churchill’s 1979 shocker isn’t anymore but Act I still packs a punch with its searing indictment of empire and staunch British values. As cranky British novelist Martin Amis famously quipped, “For centuries England led the world in culture and commerce. Now the only thing they lead in, is decline.”
Churchill aims for the sneer hidden behind that stiff upper lip. She scores a hilarious bulls eye by shedding a white hot light on a l9th c. colonial family “converting” (and flogging) the natives in Africa. Never have Queen (or more precisely, “Empress”) Victoria’s “dominions beyond the sea” been so deliciously scandalized. Director Marc Miller gets powerful performances from the entire cast, especially from Christopher J. Hagberg as the unfulfilled mother of the clan. Act I is played just this side of caricature and it’s to Hagberg’s credit that we sympathize deeply with mother’s painful predicament. Josh Pritchard has a field day as the philandering father and Gillian Mackay-Smith holds her own in mighty strong company as the disapproving mother-in-law.
Mike Budwey stands in for the exploited (and rightfully peeved) indigenous Africans and Erin Scanlon stomps about with her sister’s doll as the conflicted son. The gender jumbling is delightful. Tara Jean Conway is the stifled governess and Danielle Bauman, a hot-blooded, loosely corseted neighbor. Adam Friedman is the “uncle” with an eye for little boys. His wedding to an equally unfit partner is one of the play’s comedic highlights.
Act II brings the characters into present time, which isn’t nearly as much fun, and the sexual revelations which were evidently jarring in l979 are now old hat, thanks in part to Eve Ensler’s VAGINA MONOLOGUES. Director Miller changes the British accents to American, to make the action as naturalistic as possible. Unfortunately, in the cavernous Y space, when the accents are dropped, so is the timbre of the voices, and you can’t hear all the dialogue.
The same actors appear in both scenes but they’ve exchanged roles, so that, for instance, Mother is now played by the actress who portrayed Mother-in-law in the previous act and the actor who portrayed Mother now plays the role of the grown up little boy. It’s a clever conceit but it doesn’t alter the disorientation the audience experiences at watching two different plays, in both style and content and I, for one, missed those stuffy, amoral Brits.