Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Margin Notes: Cloud 9

Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican as Cathy and Lin.
Photo by Russ Rowland.

Seen on: Monday, 7/3/17.
My grade: B-

Plot and Background
Cloud 9 follows a family and some of its satellite personalities across what is either a century or only twenty-five years - the first half finds Englishman Clive and his family living in Africa in 1880 as social unrest against the colonizers is on the rise; the second half shows us what remains of the family twenty-five years on, but in 1980s London. Both halves are riddled through with commentary on gender and sexual politics, infidelity, racism, entitlement, and the savages of violence among humans. The Seeing Place is a company which uses Brechtian devices in its productions to confront the desensitized trajectory of society.

What I Knew Beforehand
I think I'd read the play at some point in college. That's about it. I brought with me a friend who'd acted in it, to be my resident expert.


Play: The performance begins with a narrator explaining that we will be seeing Caryl Churchill's play, not only completely uncut, but with stage directions (particularly those indicating when a role is cast genderbent or racebent) read aloud and the full trappings of theatricality, such as costume changes, on full display. Sometimes these devices are quite powerful - when the narrator indicates a mother slapping her child, and the actors don't even gesture at the violence, but stare into each others' eyes; when an embrace is instructed, and obliged only grudgingly by the players - other times it seems more a hindrance to performance than an enabler, stepping over the dialogue to indicate exits and entrances we can see quite clearly without narrative aid, or robbing us of what is only narrated as a moment of quiet stillness. And I can't quite reconcile how some costume changes still happen out of sight - chiefly those involving two of the men putting on or taking off the wigs when they're playing female. This above all seems to be something they would want to highlight for that distancing effect. Another sometimes powerful element added to performance is the set of chalkboards across the back wall - Survival Tips 1880 and Survival Tips 1980. At various times during performance, a character will walk to one of these boards, select a piece of chalk, and write down a survival tip ("Pretend to be normal," "No pain, always smile"). There's a poignancy to this device, though I could wish for more craft in the framing of it - had it perhaps happened when characters leave the playing space, as the lesson they've taken from the scene, rather than a somewhat distracting motion happening while something else is going on. There's a barely controlled chaos to a lot of the proceedings, which adds charm, particularly to the first half of the play, but I start wishing rather desperately for a moment of honest stillness.

Cast: Overall I'd say the cast is game for the enormous challenges of this play but not necessarily always on the same page as one another. Their device of having many of the stage directions read aloud by a narrator, while certainly achieving the distancing effect they wanted, ultimately feels a bit under-rehearsed, as the cast sometimes starts to speak over the directions. The biggest standout among the ensemble is Jane Kahler, playing the lusty Mrs. Saunders and the sweetly loyal Ellen in act one, then the particularly touching and out of step older Betty in act two. Erin Cronican is also notable as the constantly fidgeting young Edward and the appealingly earthy Lin. Brandon Walker's Clive has a somewhat metatheatrical air to him, as a ringleader trying desperately to wrangle his circus animals and keep the story spiraling forward. Throughout the whole ensemble is a yearning sense toward connection, coupled with the conviction that true connection may not be possible.

Design: Erin Cronican's set creates an apt space for the story being told, along with its Brechtian leanings, with an astroturf frame and a union jack flag painted across the floor. The furniture - a set of white-painted ornately-detailed patio chairs and table - never changes across either act, even as the narrated stage directions explain our new locations. The sound design, unfortunately, seems in direct defiance of the directive set out at the top of the play - not only is the sound not crafted in front of the audience but broadcast over speakers like in most other shows, but it often overwhelms the action, forcing the cast to shout to be heard over the din.


Running: Now playing at The Access Theatre (The Seeing Place) - Opening: June 30, 2017. Closing: July 16, 2017.
Category: straight play
Length: 2 hours, 50 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Co-Directors: Brandon Walker. and Erin Cronican. Assistant Director: Candice Oden
Designers: Erin Cronican (Set/Costume), Duane Pagano (Lighting), Brandon Walker (Sound), Jane Kahler (Dialect Coaching).
Cast: Erin Cronican, Jane Kahler, Bill McAndrews, Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia, Robin Friend Stift, Ari Veach, Brandon Walker, Michael Stephen Clay, Mariel Reyes, Clinton Powell.

Bill McAndrews, Jane Kahler, Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia, Ari Veach, Robin
Friend Stift, Brandon Walker, and Erin Cronican as Joshua, Ellen, Maud,
Betty, Harry, Clive, and Edward. Photo by Russ Rowland.

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