Audiences have sent hate mail to the University of Montana’s Drama and Dance department after viewing one of Cristian Popescu’s shows. That’s certainly one good reason to see Cloud Nine, Popescu’s last production at UM.
Caryl Churchill’s 1979 play explores sexual oppression and liberation, and liberation’s aftermath, using an unconventional structure. Between the two acts, actors swap roles—including genders, races, and generations—as the play’s setting accelerates from Victorian colonial Africa in Act I to contemporary England in Act II. Popescu says the theme and structure attracted him to direct the play. In its execution, he coaxes a visceral performance from his actors.
In Act I, set in colonial Africa, a rumor of restless natives and the arrival of two unexpected guests hurls Clive’s and Betty’s proper English family into a series of delightful and sinister sexual escapades. The guests prey upon the family’s sexual angst with both humorous and ominous results. Mrs. Saunders, a nearby neighbor, arrives on Clive’s back carrying only her surging libido and a small riding whip. Clive takes advantage of both as best he can. Harry Bagley, family friend and explorer of the continent, appears ready to carnally engage almost any member of the household—husband, wife, governess, servant, or son. Betty, Clive’s doting, submissive, coy and powerless wife, pants after Bagley while her own governess seduces her.
As Clive, stout head of the household, attempts to keep news of the tribal uprising from the suspicious females, his servant Joshua keeps him apprised of his wife’s wanton intent and the stable boys’ insurrection.
Clive’s objective to “tame the continent” and quell the uprising becomes something akin to taming erotic desire. It’s hardly possible. In Act II, the characters are 25 years older and free to pursue the objects of their desires. Sexual deviance is an obsolete phrase. Betty blithely announces that she plans to leave her husband. Victoria, a baby in Act I, now leaves her husband Martin for her friend Lyn in Act II. She is joined by her sibling Edward, on an imposed break from his boyfriend Gerry. He fondles his sister’s breasts. She warns him: “I’m enjoying this.” The relationships are open, love and lust are free for the taking, but ironically the characters are no less fettered from the stresses and tensions that existed when stigmas were still attached to their now socially acceptable relationships.
The play succeeds on a number levels. The role changes between acts require thespian calisthenics. Initially, Michael Kane masterfully portrays Clive, stalwart protector of the British empire; later, he easily transforms into wide-eyed Cathy, a whining, tantrum-throwing four-year-old toddler—beard and all—who recites dirty nursery rhymes and exhibits an insatiable appetite for adult attention.
Robyn Rose also displays remarkable flexibility in jumping generations. She sheds the youthful, energetic Edward for the mature, perky Betty who delivers a touching monologue on rediscovering masturbation. Kendra Mylnechuk’s saucy portrayal of Mrs. Saunders and her adroit use of her riding whip merit the cost of at least one ticket and a triple-take. Her transformation into Victoria, who juggles the responsibilities of wife, mother and career-woman is true, tortured and absolute.
As Joshua, Tyler Potter delivers few lines but displays a heavy, calculated stage presence. His silent primal dance is one of the more visceral moments in the first act. As Gerry, he commands the stage as he delivers a sharp, rhythmic monologue on sex with a stranger on a train. Ciara Griffin as Ellen, the governess, wears her repression and confusion well.
Valinda Ghee makes a leap from Maud, the mother in Act I who delivers hilarious, scathing one-liners with an angelic smile, to a lesbian mother looking for love in Act II. Monte Jenkins dons two characters managing rejection: a hysterical, skirt-snapping Betty, who repulses her own husband, and the adult Edward, on the dole and dismissed by his boyfriend.
Making the most of these interchangeable roles, Popescu has directed his actors to deliver active, hands-on performances. Characters are dragged and bitten, slapped and groped, they writhe in frustration and mount in conquest. In this play, the noise is loud and so is the quiet. The humorous dialogue sizzles at the surface while more sinister themes file out of the wardrobe. The ensemble is tight, the rhythm true, the humor dark, the moments of silence poignant. In the end, sexual fetishes are absorbed into the commonplace. Popescu summarizes the essence of the drama: “Now we can sleep with whomever we want. Are we happy? Is that what we want? Is that all?”
“I’m not telling the answers,” he says, but “part of the beauty of this play… is it shows that there is something beyond [sexual liberation]. That we still don’t know how to answer our basic questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we go?”
Cloud Nine will run Oct. 8-12 and 15-19 at 7:30 PM at the UM Masquer Theatre.