Theater Review: CLOUD 9 (Custom Made Theatre Company in San Francisco)

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by Tony Frankel on December 5, 2019

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Has it really been 40 years since Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 was first presented? The biting satire is so topical — containing cross-dressing, gay relationships, and patriarchal and colonial rule — that one would think it just arrived on the scene. It’s every bit as entertaining, contemporary, and downright mind-blowing in 2019 as it was in 1979, even though Custom Made Theatre Company’s production has some issues given Allie Moss’s direction and tone lacking a unified vision.

Set in both British Colonial Africa and 1970s’ London, Cloud 9 is an outrageously funny, thought-provoking look at the rigid boxes society puts us in — and what it takes to break free. Churchill’s bold two-act play takes us from a family of British expats from Victorian-era colonial Africa in the first act to 1970s London in the second, while aging the characters a mere twenty-five years. Sound confusing? Some of it is in this production, but give it a chance as Churchill’s direction asks for actors whose gender and even race may not at first glance reflect the characters they are playing.

Act I’s matriarch Betty (Mario Mazzetti) is played by a man (“what men want is what I want to be”); patriarch Clive (Evan Winet) is a blustery colonialist not unlike Colonel Hathi the Elephant in The Jungle Book; and their two children, two-year-old toddler Victoria, embodied by a doll because this is precisely how her family members view her, and nine-year-old son Edward (Alejandra Wahl), who is precociously played by a female actor to reflect the doll-loving boy’s inability to conform either to his societally-assigned gender role or to his budding sexuality. African servant Joshua (Alan Coyne) is played by a white man because “what white men want is what I want to be.”

Confined by the strictures of Victorian society, Churchill’s 1879 characters find themselves incapable of authentic self-expression, whether it’s family friend Harry (Zaya Kolia), whose same-sex desires can only be fulfilled in power-imbalanced assignations with Edward and Joshua, or male chauvinist Clive, himself a victim of 19th-century gender stereotypes, or Betty, who will need to wait a hundred years for her own personal woman’s liberation.

Act II’s 1979 pre-AIDS London allows Cloud 9’s dramatis personae a freedom their 1879 selves could scarcely have imagined, with thirtysomething Edward’s same-sex partner Gerry cruising London parks for anonymous hookups, Victoria leaving the constraints of her traditional marriage for a lesbian relationship with single mom Lin (a consistently grounded Renee Rogoff), and grandmother Betty (Monica Cappuccini) discovering the joys of independence. We learn that emancipation from societal restraints doesn’t necessarily mean everyone lives on cloud nine, however; freedom provides at least as many challenges as it does rewards (something America is grappling with to this day).

At Custom Made’s upstairs theater on Sutter, the physically distinct actors do their best to figure out whether to keep it real or farcical in Candice Liao’s striking costumes (Betty’s dress in Act I is stunning). The other technical elements feel low-budget, but that’s not the issue. The actors must possess a finesse and flair without ever resorting to caricature, and that simply doesn’t happen here as the performers often seem to be left to their own devices. In Act I, Mr. Winet’s eyes rove about as if he’s in a vaudeville act, instead of inhabiting abject seriousness, and the actors playing children are playing children not being children. Additionally, entrances and exits can feel clunky. It’s not that the the cast members aren’t extraordinarily likable; they are. Additionally, the production in general is creditable and recommended for those who haven’t seen Cloud 9 elsewhere). It’s just that Churchill’s challenging material, lacking emotional depth and academic sophistication here, doesn’t resonant.

photos by Jay Yamada

Cloud 9
Custom Made Theatre Company
533 Sutter in San Francisco
ends on December 15, 2019
for tickets, visit Custom Made

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