Still shagging after all these years
Absurdist Brit comedy Cloud 9 kicks off the new, improved Blue Room
Last Friday saw the unveiling of the new and improved Blue Room, dark the past few months as the theater’s stalwarts labored day and night to get the shop ready for their first opening night of the New Year. Before the lights went down, director Joe Hilsee stepped onstage to detail the improvements, such as improved and expanded seating, new carpeting and paint, and refined bathroom accommodations. By the time he began to thank those who had volunteered their time, energy, and skills, the man was obviously all farklempt. And for good reason—the theater looks great.
The bottle of champagne across the prow is Caryl Churchill’s challenging exploration of sexual zeitgeist, Cloud 9. Although not as shocking as it would have been when first performed 20 years ago, the dark comedy still holds the ability to disturb.
Act One opens in colonial Africa of 1880. Keeping the locals in check is oh-so British ambassador Clive, the prototypal stiff-upper-lipped patriarch of his central casting Victorian family—wife Betty, mother-in-law Maud, son Edward, daughter Victoria, and the children’s governess, Ellen. As the drumbeat of native unrest pounds in the distance, they look to Clive’s black manservant Joshua (Isaiah Bent) as their hedge against unruly locals. Their Victorian veneer begins to crack with the arrival of famous African explorer Harry, revealing carnal urges fighting desperately against the self-imposed shackles of sexual repression, as called for by God, Queen, and Mother England.
Seems that Betty has a thing going with Harry, which distresses Clive (despite the fact that he’s bumping uglies with a local widow). Even more unwelcome is the fact that Harry seems to be an obvious product of the boarding school system (if you know what I mean—nudge, nudge, wink, wink), which only further muddies young Edward’s already confused sexual identity. Meanwhile, Ellen has a bad case of “the love that dare not speak its name” going for Betty, and Joshua, well, Joshua has his own issues.
Act Two flashes us forward a hundred years to swinging London, finding the characters curiously having aged only 25 years and even more curiously altered in identity—Edward has become Victoria, all grown up and about to make a cuckold of Martin (who used to be Clive). Ellen is now the matronly Betty; Maud has become the manhating Lin, with daughter Cathy (née Harry). Joshua has now donned leather and cruises gay clubs as Gerry when not dropping by to torture his erstwhile lover Edward (who used to be Betty). Got that? They’re all still very confused, and all still shagging one another…
With its themes of adultery, rough trade, incest, pedophilia, and even the evocation of necrophilia as an endearment (Churchill seems to have missed bestiality in her catalog), Cloud 9 obviously has an agenda. Not so obvious is what that agenda is; Churchill’s piece is aggressively absurdist, and while her riffs on the hypocrisy of gender politics and repression are fairly obvious, what is not so apparent is what her ultimate point really is. Despite that, Hilsee and his game cast have taken a notoriously challenging play and delivered a polished and entertaining night out.
Ever-reliable Blue Room veterans Betty Burns, Callen Reese, Amber Miller and Jocelyn Stringer—along with relative newcomers Matt Hammons and Isaiah Bent—are all in fine form here, dealing with the demands of the duality of their characters admirably. Long absent theater vet Paul Stout also makes a welcome return to local stage as the riding-crop-up-his-ass Clive and befuddled alter ego Martin.