Looking back over the early reviews of Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 is an object lesson in how far sexual politics have come since 1979. The critical front line in the 1980s seemed baffled about how to talk about the play, with its cross-gender casting, leaps in time (the first act happens in 1880 colonial Africa, the second in 1980 London), and sexual polymorphism.
In 1984, a New York Times critic wrote: "Miss Churchill's characters suffer extremes of sexual confusion, from role reversal to homosexuality to adultery to bisexual incest." (I trust the Times—or at least its theater editor—no longer considers homosexuality an "extreme of sexual confusion.") And an Los Angeles Times review from 1989 noted that "the characters seem to be enjoying their choice of life style." (Remember when homosexuality was a "lifestyle choice"?)
It's curious that the critics at the time, who raised their eyebrows at homosexuality and adultery, didn't even mention the pedophilia. By 2011, it's the only taboo sexual configuration Cloud 9 has left. Even the "bisexual incest" of act two seems relatively innocent: A gay man (James Cowan), lives with his bisexual sister (Sarah Rudinoff) and her lady (Imogen Love) and offhandedly tells his ex-boyfriend (Scott Shoemaker) that he "sleeps" with them. What that means, exactly, is not discussed.
So what does Cloud 9 look like, 32 years later, to an audience that no longer feels compelled to gather up its skirts and fret about how adults conduct themselves in the boudoir? A bit anachronistic, to tell the truth. Its main themes—oppression exists, it dements both the oppressors and the oppressed, liberation is not a guarantee of happiness, and people do best when they negotiate their own lives on their own terms instead of living by a template—don't seem as revelatory as they might've in 1979.
But the play still has plenty of toys for a cast that knows how to use them. Its first act, a satire of a British colonial family, is full of tortured relationships: The governess is in love with the wife (played by a man); the wife is in love with an explorer; the explorer puts sexual pressure on the wife, her effeminate son (played by a woman), and the family's black servant (played by a white man); the father is having an affair with a nearby widow; and the servant is torn between repudiating his "bad people" ("My skin is black, but o, my soul is white. I hate my tribe. My master is my light") and loathing the colonial oppressors who employ him. Then there's the wife's mother, who doesn't seem to get along with anybody.
Act two is set in a London park 100 years later, though the characters grafted in from act one have aged only 25 years. (You'd need a chart to describe who plays which role from act to act.) These relationships are also tortured, but without the same level of menace and violence—couples breaking up, threesomes getting together, children coming out to their parents, the colonial-era mother leaving her husband and rediscovering the joys of masturbation.
The cast is all Seattle favorites, actors with long résumés and demonstrated comic skills. Basil Harris (of the art-pop band "Awesome") kills as the sexually tortured and manipulative explorer in the first act, using clipped understatement like a deadly weapon. He does even better in the second act as an ostensibly "sensitive," but in fact prickish, husband whose wife (Rudinoff) wants to leave him for a woman she met while their kids were playing in the park. (His politics run something like this: "I was all for the '60s when liberation just meant fucking." And: "There's no point being so liberated you make yourself cry all the time.")
Imogen Love as the stern grandmother in the first act has some wickedly dry, Oscar Wildean passages:
Grandmother: Young women are never happy.
Wife: Mother, what a thing to say.
Grandmother: Then when they're older, they look back and see that comparatively speaking they were ecstatic.
But while individual actors have individually great moments, the production suffers from an overall lack of cohesive energy and momentum. This is the first directing project for well-respected local actor Nick Garrison, which might be part of the problem. The pacing lurches from snappy to slow, the first act relies too heavily on camp and mugging (its best moments are when actors let the text, and not their zany facial expressions, do the work—the second act is more naturalistic), and some of the blocking seems forced and academic. (As in, somebody's gotta move, so you cross now, instead of a natural outgrowth of what the characters are saying and doing.)
Thirty-two years after it first troubled theater critics and thrilled audiences, this Cloud 9 is a solidly middle-of-the-road production: sometimes taut, sometimes sluggish, nothing shocking.