At the Havana Theatre
1212 Commercial Drive
through May 28
Tickets: $15 advance, $20 at the door

Everyone’s doing it in Cloud 9: men with women, men with men, women with women, husbands with wives (rarely), masters with servants, adults with children, brothers with sisters. And when they’re not doing it or talking about doing it with others, they’re doing it to themselves.

For English playwright Caryl Churchill, the British Empire was founded not on the playing fields of Eton but in the bedrooms, barns and back-alleys of colonial Africa and contemporary London. Written at the height of the 1970s sexual revolution and women‘s liberation movement, Cloud 9 equates colonial oppression with sexual repression. It imagines an England freed from its own patriarchal history by individuals who liberate themselves from the prescriptions of traditional sexual roles.

The play takes interesting liberties with chronology and casting, introducing us to a British colonial family in Africa in late Victorian times, then to the same family in London a century later--but the characters have aged only 25 years.

To underline the absurdity of sexual and racial attitudes, Churchill specifies that the colonial wife be played by a man (Anthony F. Ingram), her son by a woman (Anna Hagan), the African servant by a white actor (Bert Steinmanis) and the daughter by a rag doll. All the actors are then double-cast for Act Two so that the large man who plays the family patriarch in Africa (John Prowse) becomes a hairy-legged little girl in a frock in London. Ingram, playing the mother in Act One, becomes her gay son in Act Two, while Hagan moves from playing the son to being his mother.

These confusions are much easier to follow on stage than in print, and way more fun. Britannia may rule the waves but chaos rules the bedroom. The lusts and seductions seething just beneath the surface of the supposedly happy, orderly Imperial family make for hilarious hypocrisy. Good old Victorian duty and discipline barely manage to keep this outpost of Empire from disintegrating.

The tone becomes more earnest in Act Two when the contemporary characters start to figure out how to liberate themselves. Like most things Seventies, there‘s a dated quality of cheesy excess in the route they take to Utopia: orgies and incest, goddess worship, and frank talk of masturbation. Thankfully, big John Prowse as hairy-legged little Cathy careens through the act leaving delightful kiddie-chaos in his/her wake.

Ian Alexander Martin directs this bare-bones production with a nice sense of the play’s rhythms and gets mostly very good work from his actors. Hagan is lovely as the Act Two mother adjusting to life on her own, and Steinmanis has two strong turns as the African servant and a contemporary gay men. Ingram’s gentle effeminacy, as mother and son, grew on me. Matthew Bissett, Valerie Sing Turner and T Weir round out the solid cast.

If all politics is really just sex, think of the possibilities for us this week!

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Thursday, May 19, 2005 10:48 AM
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