Who am I? Who are you? What do I want? What part am I supposed to play? We are so wrapped up in our own identity and the identity of others. Cloud 9, the fourth show in Iron Crow’s Season of Identity, was made for this theater company. It was the peanut butter to the company’s jelly. I have to admit I knew this play really well. I performed in Cloud 9 years ago when I was a little BITR Sister, so I was excited to see it from the audience perspective.
For those unfamiliar with the script, Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 is a play with two distinct yet related acts that make use of casting roles with intentionally switched genders as a commentary on gender roles and sexuality. In Act 1 we find ourselves in 1880 at the African estate of a British family including wife Betty (Tavish Forsyth) husband Clive (Matthew Lindsay Payne), their young son Edward (Barbara Madison Hauck), governess Ellen (Kathryn Daniels), Betty’s mother Maud (Kristina Szilagyi) and African slave Joshua (Nick Fruit). This is a proper British family. A male dominated British family. A sexually repressed British family. Welcome to the Victorian jungle.
A few standout performances include Tavish Forsyth in his role as Betty. I could not take my eyes off of him. The ever so structured femininity written by Churchill was flawlessly executed by Forsyth. He was every bit a woman from his light voice, fidgety yet delicate hands, poise, and yearning for something more. He played her with sweetness and outrageousness- and it was wonderful. Young son Edward, played by the adorable Barbara Madison Hauck, was equal part brat and sweet little boy who just wants to play with his doll. I wanted to hug him and slap him at the same time.
Clive’s friend Harry Bagley (Jonas Grey) has come back from his adventures in the wilderness ready to tell stories of conquests and to sexually stir up several family members. Harry is the man! He knows what he wants but is also confused. The fluidity of his sexuality is complex and intriguing. Who does he really want? This tortured yearning and quiet confidence was played excellently by Jonas Grey. Kathryne Daniels does double duty in Act 1 playing both governess Ellen and “independent woman” neighbor Mrs. Saunders. Her comedic timing was impeccable; however besides from the costuming, I wanted to see her differentiate between the characters just a hair more. Baby Victoria’s performance was a bit stiff, but she was a terrific ensemble character.
Act 2 is 100 years in the future from Act 1. Betty (Barbara Madison Hauck), Edward (Tavish Forsyth) and baby Victoria (Kristina Szilagyi) are back, but this time it’s 1980s London. For the characters only 25 years have passed and they are played by different actors. Lin (Kathryne Daniels) and her daughter Cathy (Matthew Lindsay Payne), Victoria’s husband Martin (Jonas Grey) and Edward’s lover Gerry (Nick Fruit) round out the characters in Act 2.
Everybody is at a precipice in their lives here. Betty questions her future. Victoria is contemplating a new job opportunity and her marriage to Martin. Edward is stuck in a relationship. What will they choose?
Nick Fruit shines as the sly polyamorous bloke Gerry. He was smug and arrogant in that likeable kind of way. Martin “the Mansplainer” was a new age kind of man who thinks he’s down with the feminist cause, but comes off a little douchey. “I’m writing a book about women from the woman’s point of view…” Thanks Martin. Grey played him with earnest and just the right amount of overbearing dominance.
Lin the straight talking, shoot from the hip lesbian played by Kathryne Daniels was one of my favorites. Lin’s the kid of female mate you want to have a pint with at the local pub and laugh all night. Daniels’ excellent comedic timing in Act 1 continues into Act 2. She plays this role with humor, softness, and humility. She transitions effortless between one liners and heartfelt love and sorrow. Daniels was lovely to watch especially in scenes with Matt Payne and Kristina Szilagyi. Matthew Lindsay Payne, as Cathy, was the best little girl ever! Animated, silly, loud and charming, I believed he was a 5 year old girl, with hair ribbons and pastel colored dresses to match. I laughed every time I saw Payne on that tricycle. Fucking brilliant!
The relationships in Act 2 were fuller and more open than in Act 1 especially between Lin and Victoria. Kristina Szilagyi played Victoria with a quiet presence and I enjoyed watching her transformation from observer to “I know what I want” participant in life. Betty’s monologue at the end was where Barbara Madison Hauck shined. I saw the real Betty, not the put upon facade of Betty in Act 1. Hauck played her with charm, vulnerability, and reckless abandonment. If Act 1 was male dominated and structured, Act 2 was for the ladies and their sexual freedom. I wanted to light a cigarette from a burning bra, I mean, not really because that would be a fire hazard inside the theater.
The set, lighting, sound and costumes were subtle enough to bring attention to the actors and contribute to the action. The set by Megan Suder was simple yet effective. A set of white wicker chairs and a couple of tall wooden screens in Act 1 made me believe we were in a 19th century parlor and estate. A bench, fake grass and a swing in Act 2 transports us to a small park in London’s city center. The United Kingdom flag hung in the background and was its own character in this play. In Act 1 it was clean, poised, crisp and artificially perfect which was mimicked by the actors on stage. Its tattered and dirty appearance in Act 2 showed the wear and tear of life and cracks in the facade. Nice job.
Lighting overall was well done by Alec Lawson. At times is was a little too bright during Act 1. I would have like to see more variety in color and focus differentiate between the scenes especially the scenes that were inside the house and on the estate; however, I particularly liked the lighting transitions during emotionally intense moments in Act 2. It was harsh when it needed to be and soft when it needed to be. It framed the scenes just so. Same goes for the sound by Devyn Deguzman. Its was present, but not overwhelming and was weaved into the emotional heights in the play.
Oh the Costumes! Simple white, black and tan colored safari gear and 19th centuy dresses were a perfect match to the repressed nature of the characters. Betty’s frail white dress decked in several different fabrics was the epitome of femininity. In contrast the bold colors, patterns and cuts of the fashions in Act 2 showcased the character’s boldness to be themselves. Cathy’s sweet dresses made me smile and the colorful dresses and smart suits of the rest of the cast were well placed in 1980s London. Heather Jackson hit it out of the park! Where did you get those vintage black and white oxfords worn by Cathy? The British dialects of both high and lower class were clear throughout the play. I believed they were British without being banged over the head with it. Thanks Teresa Spencer for getting the actors in line.
Dr. Natka Bianchini’s nuanced direction was wonderful. She was able to pull out the harshness and tenderness of each character effortlessly. She had a true understanding of the text and you could tell she encouraged her actors to really lean into the absurdity and realness of the emotions in the language. Bravo. The blocking was also spot on. Yes I’m a person who appreciates good blocking especially if it complements the emotions being portrayed. The closer the actors got, the more uncomfortable and emotionally vulnerable they became, their distance showing their attempts at properness and restraint. This play is an external push and pull between the characters and internal within themselves and the staging matched the emotional intensity and struggle.
It’s hard to believe Cloud 9 was written 40 years ago. Its themes of gender identity, feminism, and sexuality are still relevant today. We live in an era where showing your birth certificate to use the bathroom is debated and wearing a pussy hat to a protest march has become routine. Its an assault on our identity. Churchill’s Cloud 9 is a raucous affair using equal parts unapologetic honesty and humor and I thoroughly enjoyed this presentation.
Should I stay or should I go? Go see this. Go read this play. Have a conversation about this play. Overall this was a well executed, sexy, funny, shocking and emotional juggernaut of a show. This play summed up the Iron Crow season in that each character became who they wanted to be. Fuck all the haters- Its quintessentially Iron Crow. Jolly good show Crows. (Z)
Runs through Feb 4th at Theater Project (45 W Preston St.)