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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Cloud Nine

Also see Richard's recent review of The Entertainer

Berkeley Repertory Theatre opened its revival of the 1980 cutting edge Caryl Churchill comedy Cloud Nine on June 12. This marks the fourth time I have seen this work by one of Britain's best playwrights. I first saw the original production at the Theatre de Lys in New York's Greenwich Village in 1980. Tommy Tune was the director and he caused quite a stir when the show was first introduced to the American public. It was one of the first presentations that deconstructed gender and class roles between the first and second acts. It was also Ms. Churchill's work where dramatic structure overshadowed the plot of a play. Cloud Nine was presented here by Eureka Theatre and played many months to SRO audiences. Recently the NCTC did a production that was very good.

Cloud Nine has two acts in which the actors change and cross dress into different characters. The first act occurs with a strong English family living in Colonial Africa in 1880. The family is headed by a typically "stiff upper lip" Clive, a macho father not only to his children but to the natives as well. The starting lines in verse form tell waht we should expect in the first act. The patriarch faces the audience and says "This is my family. Though far from home/ We serve the Queen whenever we may roam/ I am a father to the natives here/And father to my family so dear". The family stands behind him as he goes further into the poem.

The first act is farcical entertainment and it really does not take itself too seriously. It is an imaginative comedy on hypocrisy and there are many clever cliches. The acting of the superb ensemble in the style of an old fashioned melodrama, and it is quite zany.

Act two is 100 years later in London, although the family members in the play have aged only twenty-five years. The family has returned to England without their father and they are now grown up. Each are seeking their own separate identities and sexual individuality, and alliances have changed. Many of the actors have cross dressed for this act. In the first act society was male dominated and firmly structured, the second act has more energy coming from women and homosexuals. There is a looser structure in the second act and it is more feminine with less of an authoritarian feeling. There is a surrealistic look at sexual repression and conditioning in this act.

The comedy is all about relationships between men and women, men and men, women and women. It's about sex, work, mother, Africa, power, children, grandmothers, politics, money, Queen Victoria and, oh, did I forget sex?

The ensemble directed by Tony Taccone is top notch. Fred Sullivan, Jr., is dashing as Harry the explorer in the first act. He is comical in his portrayal in his manly stance and his craven pedophile. Sullivan is also good in the second act as Martin who has a long winded thesis on sex and life in general.

Danny Schele, making his first appearance at the Berkeley Rep, is perfect as the wife of macho Clive. He plays the role fluttering about, knowing she is mistress of the house. In the second act, he turns to be a charismatic swaggering homosexual who wants only informal sex with no names to be exchanged. However, he unexpectedly shows his sensitive side toward the end of the play. It is a poignant tour de force. Matthrew Boston is flawless as the strange accented servant Joshua in the first act and he shines in the completely opposite role as an openly vulnerable gay man in act two.

Stacy Ross commandeers three roles in this production. In the first act she quicky and constantantly changes from the weak maid who is secretly in love with her mistress to a strong whip hitting Mrs. Saunder, a neighbor. In the second act, she becomes a provocative and tender working class lesbian named Ellen. Cynthia Strickland plays her own mother in the second act and she brings a moving pathos to the role Timothy Crowe is Clive, the colonialist and misogynist Victorian male who gives hilarious accuracy to the role. He cross dresses in the second act to play a 6 year old precocious brat, running and screaming about the stage. Angela Brazil is wonderful as the young Edward, an effeminate son of Clive. He loves playing with dolls rather then batting a ball around. Ms. Brazil changes completely in the second act, playing Victoria, a woman questioning her own sexuality.

Cloud Nine is a handsome production with excellent sets by Loy Arcenas. The lighting and sound were perfect on opening night. Kudos to director Tony Taccone and the entire ensemble cast who play each role with its inherent duality to a T. The comedy will play through July 28 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, Ca. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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