Not feeling fine

Cloud Nine

It’s a gender-bending safari! Bill Ware and Jorge Hoyos.

It’s a gender-bending safari! Bill Ware and Jorge Hoyos.

Rated 2.0

Maybe it was because I had a cold, or the smoke was getting to me. But when I was told, upon arrival at Brüka Theatre to see the opening performance of Cloud Nine, that the first act alone would be an hour and 25 minutes, “so go ahead and use the bathroom now,” I became grumpy.

“Well, how long is the play?” I asked.

“Oh, should be done right about 11:00,” the friendly greeter chirped.

Three hours. Ugh. Grumpier still, I trudged to the bathroom, thinking, “This thing had better be good.”

So perhaps I had unfair expectations. I rallied a bit when the stage lights came up and the hilariously outfitted cast began singing.

“Oh good, it’s funny,” I thought.

Through the song, we meet Clive (Bill Ware), a British colonialist during Victorian times, and the family he has brought with him to “the Dark Continent.” His wife, Betty, sings, “I am what my husband wants me to be"—ironic considering she’s being played by a man (Jorge Hoyos). Same goes for Linda Retner’s portrayal of their son, the effeminate Edward, who claims only to serve his father, or Tom Plunkett’s portrayal of a white man acting as the family’s black slave, Joshua.

There’s also Victoria, played by a doll; Betty’s prudish mother, Maud (Hannah Neace); Ellen, the governess (Mary Bennett); the randy widow Mrs. Saunders (Jamie Plunkett); and a visiting explorer, Harry Bagley (Lewis Zaumeyer). Their interactions all point out the general oppression of women and third world cultures, and the tendency to foist gender roles unfairly upon society.

Soon, everyone’s screwing everyone—regardless of age or gender—and this became uncomfortable for several in the audience. I watched one family exit the theater during an early raunchy scene. Several others didn’t return after intermission.

I’m assuming Cloud Nine, written in the late 1970s, was conceived on an acid trip. How else can you explain why, in Act 2, the actors all change roles, or why, although they’ve only aged 25 years, it’s now 1979? Perhaps this is to illustrate how slowly people and policies change. Or maybe playwright Caryl Churchill was just giving us the finger.

In Act 2, everyone is cast as his or her Act 1 character’s polar opposite. Bill Ware plays Edward, the gay son he picked on as Clive. Hoyos is now Gerry, Edward’s cheating lover. Retner is now Victoria, a wife, mother and bisexual who is fooling around with Lin, a butch single mother played by Neace. And Mary Bennett, who was Ellen, the governess in love with Betty, now plays Betty herself.

It’s an interesting idea, but it’s infuriating when it’s 10 p.m., there’s an hour to go, and the actors, many of whom do lousy British accents, are standing around staring at each other—a LOT—trying to make some unknown point.

Luckily, a couple performances nearly save the show.

Take Jorge Hoyos, who’s tremendous as the hand-wringing, worrisome Betty. Or the reliable Bennett, whose Act 2 Betty delivers huge laughs. Plunkett’s Joshua is also really funny.

Less fun is Neace, whose ultra-puckery Maud made me cringe; though, she comes back in Act 2 as a pretty good Lin. And Zaumeyer again seems stiff onstage in a Brüka show.

Given my grumpiness, the explicit content and the fact that opening nights can be dodgy, I struggle with a recommendation. I admire director Androo Allen’s ambition with such a challenging show. There are some strong performances and hearty laughs waiting for the open-minded. But wait until the production tightens up a bit.