Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Rob Curran, Fri., March 9, 2001
Cloud Nine: Bring It All Back Home
B. Iden Payne Theatre,
through March 10
Running Time: 2 hrs, 10 min
After rumbling greatness in the first act, the UT Department of Theatre & Dance production of Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine ends thin and foggy. Passion from cast and crew gives the opening half of the show a pulse, beating true like the drums backstage. The play opens in 19th-century East Africa, where Clive, an overpaid braggart working for the British Colonial Office, bullies everyone around him. His victims include his family, his manservant Joshua (Justin Saj), and his Christmas guest, the closeted gay crocodile slayer Harry Bagley (bravo, Nathaniel Orr). In a Wildean farce, Churchill details their appearances and exposes their secret lives.
Churchill's characters and themes in 19th-century East Africa have immediate counterparts in 21st-century USA. Clive's wife Betty (the dainty Steve Hamm) is encouraged by her mother (Lameece Isaaq) to comply with the brutality of the Empire. Betty's mother thinks like Laura Bush: The less a wife knows about burnt-down villages, the smoother the administration. Joseph E. Murray caricatures the bullying Clive, sparing the pig just enough humanity to convince the audience. Ruth Eve Heymann changes costume with miraculous speed to play a strong man-eater, Mrs. Saunders, and a timid lesbian, Ellen -- Jane Eyre's two faces -- in the same scenes. (Costume designer Maggie Dick celebrates camp in a world of baggy jodhpurs and frilly bloomers.) Churchill's script peaks when Harry Bagley raises his glass and, through a stiff moustache, pays lip service to Christ, family values, and the imperial flag. As he speaks, Bagley is eyeing Clive's son Edward (brava, Stephanie Ila Silver), a boy he molests whenever the opportunity arises. With this simple toast, Churchill swipes at the duplicity of Victorian Britain, the mayhem caused by repression of desire, and the psychosexual motives for penetration of other lands.
While Clive half-believes that he saves natives from their own tyranny, he knows that he makes good money in that part of the world. In other words, Clive digs U.S. foreign policy. In Churchill's convincing scenario, the belief in one country's system as superior to another cannot be isolated in a believer's mind. Chauvinism bleeds into all aspects of Clive's life and the lives of his family, hence disturbing scenes of misogyny, racism, self-hatred, and child abuse.
The second-act world of contemporary London brings less immediacy to contemporary Texas. The cast swap roles as the characters move forward in time 100 years but become only 25 years older. Director Michael Breult loses the potency of the first act as the actors struggle with Birmingham accents and sex. Lameece Isaaq, as the lesbian Lin, represents the minority groups whose voices purged London of Maggie Thatcher and dead Victorian dreams. Colonial Clive's children Victoria (in this act, Ila Silver) and Edward (Murray) are both attracted by this figure. While their discoveries might be fresh in some societies, in London their story has been worn thin. In 2001, the mayor of London embraces communism and the city's gay community has an international profile. The daring sexual explorations of Churchill's characters have become well-charted territory in the two decades since she wrote her play.
In one of the few comic successes in the second act, Edward falls in love with tough guy Gerry (Steve Hamm). Something about the butch biker reminds the audience of Edward's mincing mother in the first act.
Invasion of any description leaves the colonizer and the colonized with trauma. Justin Saj gives the second act some power as a British soldier maintaining hatred in Northern Ireland. British soldiers, however, belong to the haze of history; a peacekeeper in Kosovo or an American pilot in Kuwait would bring this play and its message out of the mist and into the audience's home.