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Cloud Nine

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Originally written and produced in the late 1970s, Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, dealing with oppression and racial and sexual politics remains relevant and interesting today, as proved by the new production at the Jose Quintero Theatre.

The characters' searches for identity in the crazy world of Churchill's invention are only half a step removed from reality at first glance, but sometimes strike unfailingly close to home. Though Churchill is a British playwright, American struggles with racism, sexism, sexual identity, and other forms of oppression have been just as big an issue over the years.

Churchill tackles these issues head on, but hardly in traditional ways. She has no qualms whatsoever about playing with traditional ideas of time and characterization. Taking place in Africa of 1880, the first act focuses on the family of Clive (Sam Hurlbut), which includes his wife Betty (Jason Woodruff), his son Edward (Jamie Watkins), and daughter Victoria, a stuffed doll. When these characters reappear in the second act, they have aged only twenty-five years or so, but a hundred years have passed for us. Watkins now plays Victoria all grown up, Woodruff is the older Edward, and so on.

Director Mina Hartong has a strong grasp on Churchill's script, keeping all of this from being confusing, but succeeds more impressively still at making the difficult-to-like characters much more agreeable, especially in the first act. The characters' sexual escapades, while outlandish, are never overly suggestive, and are frequently staged in very humorous and creative ways.

Unfortunately, Hartong can't maintain the pace during the second act; she doesn't handle the transition between the two time periods as well as she might. The connections between the two acts are impossible to miss in the dialogue, but the energy and drive of the show never really picks up again after the intermission. Still, Hartong's more important gift here is in the handling of her actors - whether in the first act or second, she never lets them lose the grip on reality that is already highly tenuous in the play.

It would be easy for Woodruff, especially, to degenerate into a kitsch portrayal through his cross-dressing, but he turns in a strongly affecting performance in both acts. Jacob Zahniser plays the black servant Joshua in the first act and two very different characters - a little girl and a deceased solider - in the second, all with equally strong and entertaining facility. Jeff Dattilo's portrayal of two inordinately sexually confused characters is very funny. The women, strangely, generally make a weaker impression, though Watkins early attachments - to dolls and men - come across quite well.

Though Cloud Nine is not a musical, its cast sings at a number of different places, most notably at the beginning (with a song written by Maury Yeston) and at the end (the title song, with lyrics by Churchill and music by Noel Katz). These numbers are entertaining, but don't them fool you - Cloud Nine sings enough on its own.

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Double Helix Productions
Cloud Nine
Jose Quintero Theater, 534 West 42nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: Smarttix at (212)206-1515