The FSU/Asolo Conservatory's Cloud Nine runs through April 22.
You don’t have to think too deeply to enjoy Cloud Nine, the current FSU/Asolo Conservatory production in the Cook Theatre—you can enjoy much of the evening simply at a comedic level. But then you’d be missing a lot of what playwright Caryl Churchill has to say in this piece, written more than 30 years ago but appearing now for the first time I can recall in Sarasota.
Churchill may be a socialist, a feminist, a Brechtian and many other descriptors, but none of those tags are applied with a heavy hand in this two-act comedy dealing with sexual and power politics. Act I is set in 1880 in colonial Africa, where the rigid and ultimately absurd precepts of duty and “proper” behavior must be adhered to, even as the characters fight all sorts of hidden desires and present false faces to the world. Clive (Joseph McGranaghan) is the head of a veddy British household, whose word is absolute law. Even as he lusts after a neighboring widow (Erin Whitney), he is shocked to find that his wife, Betty (Jesse Dornan), may be doing the same with an explorer friend, Harry Bagley (Francisco Rodriguez).
Bigger shock still is finding out Harry’s true sexual leanings, which include some nasty bits of interaction with Clive and Betty’s sexually confused young son, Edward (Lindsay Tornquist). We also meet Betty’s typically domineering mother (Sarah Brown), Edward’s closet-lesbian governess (Kelly Campbell), the infant daughter, Victoria (portrayed by a doll), and the black servant (played by a white actor, Zak Wilson), Joshua, whose loyalties to the empire and his family conflict at crucial moments. At times the attitude is reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch—especially since Dornan as Betty is actually a man in drag—and oh, by the way, Edward is played by a female.
Obviously, Churchill is having some fun tweaking our conceptions of what men and women are supposed to be like, something she continues to do in Act II, which takes us to a park in London approximately 100 years later. Here some of the same characters appear—Betty, Victoria, and Edward—but for them it’s only 25 years later. And while Victorian repression no longer reigns, the sexual freedoms of this new era can be just as confusing to figure out as ever. A married Victoria, now played by Tornquist, finds herself drawn to a lesbian (Brown); Edward (now McGranahan) is in a relationship with a homosexual (Dornan) who’s a promiscuous cheater; and Betty (now Whitney) has left Clive to strike out on her own. More than once, a character is admonished by another to “be yourself”—but it’s still not so easy to do. And certainly if the title, Cloud Nine (sometimes rendered as Cloud 9), is meant to have anything to do with a state of heavenly bliss, it’s unattainable.
Under the direction of Greg Leaming, the second-year Conservatory students do a generally impressive job of presenting these comically tortured souls, seeming comfortable especially with the upper-class and period attributes in Act I. (The more recent era of 1980s London is harder to pull off, somehow.) The costumes by David Covach and minimal but effective set and lighting design by Rick Cannon also help to set the right tone.
Cloud Nine continues through April 22; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.