Review: ‘Cloud 9’ at The Studio Theatre

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, now playing at Studio Theatre, is a fabulous, funny, smart, and ever more relevant vision of a world in the midst of upheaval.

The cast of 'Cloud 9' at Studio Theatre. Photo by Theresa Wood.
The cast of ‘Cloud 9’ at The Studio Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Director Michael Kahn, always the exquisite regisseur, outdoes himself with Churchill’s masterpiece, as he breathes intimate life into the script’s gender-bending, time-warping, concept-stretching leap into sex and identity and empire.

The far ranging text, which soars over time and continents, has never been so fused and focused.

In Studio’s Methany Theatre, the tight-knit cast goes Victorian in Act I, and London, post-Beatles in Act II, and never once overplays the fun, making the play’s alternate universe quite the norm.

As the British Empire, on which the sun never sets, approaches sunset, we meet Clive’s colonial British family.

Clive, the family’s patriarch, is played with posh and charm by John Scherer: he introduces his clan.

Wyatt Fenner plays his young, demure wife, Betty, and her volcanic desire is always just below the surface.

Meanwhile Clive’s son, Edward, played with feminine hilarity by Laura C. Harris, simply cannot put baby Victoria’s doll down.

John Scherer and Joy Jones in Cloud 9 at Studio Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.
John Scherer and Joy Jones in ‘Cloud 9’ at The Studio Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Keeping the family rock-solid is, not the Queen Mother herself, but Maude, Betty’s mother. Joy Jones gives gentile mind control to this family matriarch.

Then there is Clive’s “adopted” son, Joshua, the African, played by Philippe Bowgen with a calm, watchful subservience, with just a touch of “watch out”.

Rounding out the cast are the two outsiders, Harry Bagley (Christian Pedersen) and Ellen/Mrs. Saunders (Holly Twyford).

Pedersen’s Bagley is all adventurous repressed pedophile, while Twyford’s dueling characters–Ellen, the family nanny, and Saunders, the family near-neighbor–exist as if on delightfully opposite ends of the “outgoing” scale.

And fun was had by all, even with drums pounding away in the background, and our family of sexually repressed subjects growing more aroused by the beat.

The second act begins with a time-warp: suddenly, it’s 1979 and everyone is a little bit older and not beneath a gravestone.

And in true fluid identity style, all the actors have switched characters with Betty’s Fenner now being Gerry and Clive’s Scherer now, Edward; Edward’s Harris has become baby Victoria grown up and Ellen’s Twyford now sits demurely as Clive’s Betty, on the verge of divorce and a new life.

To be sure, in less expert hands the clarity of plot and character might have slipped into fuzziness or a temptation to camp.

This ensemble of players, however, under Kahn’s finesse-driven fingers stays perfectly human on, or off, the stage.

The design team, led by the simplicity of Luciana Stecconi’s sets and Frank Labovitz’s costumes, reinforces the production’s clarity of purpose.

Peter West’s lights and Christopher Baine’s sound design only punctuate that virtual space made for actor and audience to converge in pleasurable good times.

Not only do we enjoy the antics and foibles of humankind, but we visually glimpse the true meaning of empire and the subservience it breeds.

Christian Pedersen and Laura C. Harris in Cloud 9 at Studio Theatre. Photo by Amy Horan.
Christian Pedersen and Laura C. Harris in Cloud 9 at Studio Theatre. Photo by Amy Horan.

Sure, other empires have risen since the collapse of the British, and they might not have a Divine Right to give them that same sweet luster; but with a little Exceptionalism to prop up the beast, I’m sure they’ll suffer the same demise.

Then we can all say: “God Save the Queen!”

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.

Cloud 9 plays through October 16, 2016, at The Studio Theatre  – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1553.gif

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Robert Michael Oliver
Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., considers himself a Creativist. He has been involved in education and the performing arts in the Washington area since the 1980s. He, along with his wife, Elizabeth Bruce, and Jill Navarre, co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in 1983. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theater and performance studies from the University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theater over the five years he worked as a reviewer than he saw in the previous 30. He now co-directs the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project. He has his first book of poetry, The Dark Diary: in 27 refracted moments, due for publication by Finishing Line Press later this year.


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