Barto Productions

at the Project

Caryl Churchill, I have concluded, is a playwright one either loves or hates. Many theater scholars declare her to be an unmitigated genius; just as many dismiss her as a gimmick-stringing hack. What is apparent from Michael Barto’s production of Cloud 9, currently playing at the Project, is that Churchill is very much a playwright of her times. Cloud 9 was probably revolutionary when written in 1979 for the experimental Joint Stock Theater Group, but it emerges in 1990 as sadly dated–in its message and in the techniques by which that message is expressed.

The first act sketches an archetypal English family of 1880 living in Africa. Clive, the head of the house, represents the worst of the Victorian paterfamilias: pompous, abusive, and chauvinistic, even while harboring a hypocritical lust for the forthright and independent Widow Saunders, who represents the best of the Victorian “New Woman.” Clive’s wife, Betty, represents (none of these characters can be said to “portray” anything resembling an individualized human being) the worst of the Victorian matron: sheltered, dependent, and supplicating, though secretly enamored of her husband’s best friend, Harry. Harry represents the best of the Victorian bachelor–clever, hearty, and adventurous, but for his homosexual attraction to Edward, Clive’s young son. Edward is repeatedly humiliated by his father for his “girlish” ways, but he worships his “Uncle Harry.” Completing the picture is baby Vicki, who is little more than a doll to her elders (the character is played by a stuffed doll); governess Ellen, as naive and helpless as the children she tends and the mistress she adores; grandmother Maud, the arbiter of moral rectitude (“I’m too old for all this–this fun!”); and the native houseboy Joshua, who makes lewd remarks to Betty even while assisting in the oppression of his countrymen. By the end of act one, everyone has been forced to do what they least want to do, and nobody is happy at all.

Act two jumps ahead to 1980, though the characters are only 25 years older than they were in 1880 (according to the program note). Edward has grown up to be tenderhearted, domestic, and gay, yearning for a permanent relationship with the macho and promiscuous Gerry. Vicki has grown up to be a housewife to the amiable but unexceptional Martin and a mother to little Tommy, whom we never see. Vicki is seriously considering leaving both and embarking on a lesbian affair with Lin, a single mother raising a singularly boisterous daughter (who’s encouraged to beat up her playmates). Betty has grown too and has left her husband to discover a new sense of autonomy and self-worth. By the end of act two, Martin, Vicki, Lin, and Edward are living together in a menage a quatre; Betty is thrilled to be holding her first job; and Gerry has promised to come visit her. Everyone seems to be jolly well on the road to personal happiness and self-fulfillment.

And isn’t it just wonderful that the bad old days are gone forever and we’re all free now? Edward can openly admit that he wants to be a woman–and that he gets turned on by fondling his sister’s breasts (“Oh, no! I think I’m a lesbian!” he exclaims in dismay). Gerry can talk to us frankly and fearlessly about getting a six-minute blow job on the subway. Lin can call her child a “sniveling pig face” and demand that she play with toy guns instead of dressing up in Betty’s clothes. Lin can also proposition Vicki with a casual “Will you sleep with me? You’ll like it.” Martin can cooperate completely and sympathetically with his wife’s departure. He can even baby-sit the children, though Lin, who states bluntly that all men are bastards, thinks him unfit for the task. Betty, now a grandmother, can earn her own money and can guiltlessly and cheerfully recount for us the profound joys of masturbation. The final image in the play is that of the Betty of 1980 embracing the Betty of 1880. You’ve come a long way, baby.

This material might have made a competent if superficial essay, contrasting Victorian prudishness–which condemned homosexuality even while promoting it through its overpolarization of the sexes–with today’s more flexible gender roles. Churchill, however, is not content to discuss these issues in a plain and straightforward manner. She has added several low-comedy elements that cripple serious communication without contributing any original humor to justify their inclusion (and inadvertently play into the blatant stereotypes characteristic of a style of British humor that may someday be known as Monty Python Victorian–does anyone still think that a man crawling under a woman’s long skirts is funny?). And so the author decided to have the 1880 Betty played by a male actor in drag (the same actor who plays Gerry in 1980), the adolescent Edward played by the actress who plays Lin in act two, and Joshua, the black servant, played by a white male actor, who later plays Lin’s hoydenish daughter. This conceit serves to render the already cartoonish characters even more grotesque. The actress playing the young Edward plays him as a boy, but the actors playing the female roles have been instructed to play them like men impersonating women (Gregory Gunter, who plays the preschool daughter, is built along the lines of the late John Belushi, which further compounds the ridiculousness). And what literary convention decrees that lesbian mothers have only daughters–or is that to be expected from a playwright who assumes that a boy who plays with dolls instead of at cricket is destined to become a gay male who prays to Isis to make him female?

Michael Barto’s excellent cast give Churchill’s propaganda far better treatment than it deserves. As the dowager grandmother Maud, Maggie Carney displays a gravity and restraint not usually found in actors so young. Patricia Kane has a fresh Gibson-girl kind of beauty and an energy that clearly marks the 19th-century Widow Saunders and the 20th-century Betty as females of the future. Fred Vipond lends a piteous humanity to the fainthearted Victorian Betty (and, with his long-boned frame and turquoise-chip eyes, looks rather pretty in a Pre-Raphaelite sort of way), while Benjamin Werling’s sensitive interpretation redeems both the chivalrous Harry and the mild-mannered Martin. John Hines’s bright-eyed face and Noel Coward accent make the transition perfectly from the silly-ass Clive to the winsome adult Edward, and Susan M. Felder makes the young Edward a son to make almost any father proud.

The jury’s still out on Caryl Churchill. Cloud 9 was obviously intended to raise controversial issues, but a decade of changes has rendered it more reassuring than thought provoking. Taking that into consideration, however, there is nonetheless much to be enjoyed in Barto’s production.