Hartford Stage is currently presenting a wildly imaginative, if somewhat overlong, production of Caryl Churchill’s time and gender-bending comedy, “Cloud 9.” Perhaps the overlength of the show is due more to the actual play than to how it is being staged: Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9” is quite an undertaking, with a cast of seven actors playing various roles in the first act (set in Africa in the late 1870s) and then taking on entirely new characters in the second act, which is set in 1979 London.
Director Elizabeth Williamson certainly has her hands full staging this show, but, with the help of her wonderful designers, Nick Vaughan (sets) and Ilona Somogyi (costumes), she has done a good job of differentiating between the two worlds in the play. What’s more, the cast is uniformly talented and game and there are many fanciful comic and dramatic highlights in the show. Hartford Stage’s production of “Cloud 9” is quite a heady experience and, even if the show doesn’t completely work, it is still worth checking out.
When the audience enters the theatre, one is faced with a music-hall type of set onstage, complete with a curtain and a piano on one side. Set in a British colony in Africa, in the late 1870s, the first act features seven actors playing eight characters (the versatile Sarah Lemp masterfully takes on two roles), with some of the men playing female parts and some of the women taking on male parts. If this sounds a bit confusing, it ultimately works out very well. The actors function splendidly as an ensemble, in addition to standing out individually.
As the mother character of Betty, Tom Pecinka is positively translucent and makes for an ideal heroine. As her husband, Clive, Mark H. Dold is suitably starchy and he is matched by the fine Chandler Williams as adventurer Harry Bagley. Emily Gunyou Halaas does well as Betty’s stern mother, Maud and William John Austin is quite good as the servant, Joshua. Still, it is Mia Dillon, a woman playing a male child, who shines the most. It should be mentioned that, in addition to the gender-bending in the play, some of the characters are sexually fluid, as well, leading to all sorts of complications.
Jumping in time to London in 1979 in the second act, the production takes on an entirely different look and tone. Gone is the proper music hall stage; instead the whole set is completely opened up, with playing areas stretching practically into the wings. Once again, there is at least one performer who takes on a role of the opposite sex (the funny Mark H. Dold playing a petulant child named Cathy) and the subject of homosexuality is even more prevalent and apparent amongst the characters in the second half. Indeed, two of the main couples are openly gay. The company of performers is absolutely terrific taking on entirely new roles in Act II, with especially gifted work by Mia Dillon, this time playing a grandmother, and the amusing (and sexually adventurous) Emily Gunyou Halaas as Dillon’s grown daughter, Victoria.
Playwright Caryl Churchill certainly has a good time skewering sexual and gender norms and her play is nothing if not mind-opening. But it almost seems like Churchill is taking on too much in “Cloud 9” and the extreme length of the play (over two hours and forty minutes, including intermission) ultimately hurts the production. Still, director Elizabeth Williamson paces the show very well and she certainly makes “Cloud 9” as coherent and interesting as possible. She also manages to bring out the best in her versatile and excellent cast.
The actual physical production of “Cloud 9” is really quite something, what with the wildly different looks between the settings in the first and second acts and there is a great deal of humor (and sauciness) in the show. Hartford Stage has done an exemplary job of presenting Caryl Churchill’s wild play, with the only real flaws being that the show is simply too long and the action can be, at times, confusing. Still, with this group of fantastic actors, all of whom are great at navigating the sexual politics of “Cloud 9,” Hartford Stage’s production certainly makes for an adventurous evening of theatre.
“Cloud 9” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through March 19, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.
Photo: (L-R): William John Austin, Sarah Lemp, Tom Pecinka, Mark H. Dold, and Emily Gunyou Halaas
Photo by T. Charles Erickson