blair williams and ann-marie macdonald
There’s a quote from Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye where he says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it” (18). That’s exactly how I feel about Caryl Churchill’s plays. Her play, Cloud 9, which plays at the Panasonic Theatre until February 21st, 2010, is a wild orchard of contemplation and a deep labyrinth for the deconstruction of provocative images and layers of complex and overlapping ideologies of gender and colonialism.
Alisa Palmer’s Canadian production, presented by David Mirvish, reminded me of what it was that first ignited my zest for Contemporary Theatre. Cloud 9 is a play that, even after studying it in University twice, still has the power to leave my head spinning with, perhaps unanswerable, questions. It seems that the more ardently one delves into its meaty core; the more layers materialize in a sort of intellectual orgy of conflicting ideas. Yet, what immediately struck me in the transition from the page to the stage, was how much of Cloud 9’s charm lies in its humour and how vigorous and vivacious this play is in its constantly hilarity.
The play opens in Victorian Africa and focuses intensely on the relationships, hierarchies, divisions of power and constructions of identities of the extended family of Clive, a British colonial administrator. His wife, Betty, is played by a male actor to exemplify how Clive has fashioned her in his own image in the quest for “the ideal woman.” Joshua, Clive’s African servant, is played by a white actor, as a reflection of the Western World’s policy of “civilizing the savages” in Africa. Clive’s young son, the effeminate Edward, is played by a woman, while his daughter, Victoria, is played by a doll (meant to be seen and not heard, and is utterly reliant on others). The play also confronts the discriminatory nature of infidelity, as it is viewed as unforgivable for a woman, yet inevitable for a man, and explores the taboos of homosexuality and emphasises how absurd it is for Victorian men to condemn homosexuality when their misogynistic principles favour the “sacred comradery of men.” The second act of the play opens in England one hundred years later, although only twenty-five years have passed for the characters, and here Churchill explores the dynamics of relationships and societal interactions when Victorian conventions are broken and individuals claim the freedom to construct their own rules and their own identities. Here, not having fixed roles or ideologies to subscribe to leads to more overt clashing of opinion, crippling confusion by the overwhelming endless options that each character faces, and the smashing down of the walls of taboos such as homosexuality, unrestrained sexual activity, and incest.
Alisa Palmer’s direction of this play is quite Brechtian, which works well in conjunction with the construction of the play itself, and creates a nice distance for the audience to reflect on Churchill’s perceptions rather than simply escaping into the emotions of the characters. Palmer makes especially great use of stylized, sharp movements, which the cast often do in tandem, which emphasises the rigidity and ritualization of even the most mundane things within the Victorian experience. In many ways the characters in Act I are automatons who often behave in prescribed ways without much consideration or forethought. Conversely, the characters in Act II are often confronted with the difficulty of having to think too much. Palmer does not shy away from the raw unpleasant underbellies of humanity that Churchill so frequently exposes, and boldness and crassness are flung with absolute vigour and no apologies. At the same time, Palmer also protects all the sweetness, and the gentle, pure moments that Churchill has woven craftily into the fray. This production is one that encourages analysis, but will not leave you cold-hearted or unaffected by your journey into in this world.
One of Alisa Palmer’s greatest accomplishments in this production is her remarkable cast. They work together as a flawless ensemble that commit so fiercely to their characters so they are able to instantly captivate the audience. Blair Williams is particularly effective in striking a balance between Harry, Clive’s friend the explorer, as the roguish, daring, “masculine” explorer and his repressed urges to express his sexual desire for men. Yanna McIntosh is incredibly starched, stern and reserved as Betty’s mother, Maud, and then just as malleable as the grown up Victoria. Ben Carlson’s Joshua is fascinating and brave, and he shows off a strikingly gorgeous singing voice as Gerry with Paul Sportelli’s brilliantly catchy “Cloud 9” song. David Jansen is perfection as the brutish, boorish Clive, and then oddly endearing, if slightly disturbing, as explosive, opinionated five year old Cathy. Evan Buliung gives an incredible performance as Betty, with such nuance as she flies from tedium to delight and back again throughout the act. His Edward in Act II brilliantly mirrors Betty’s gentle disconnect from the world around her, although Edward proves his own strength and resolve to create a place of his own where he will belong.
Megan Follows and Ann-Marie MacDonald truly surpass even perfection in their performances in this production. Follows plays two roles in the first act, which means that backstage she must be in constant state of costume change. Ellen and Mrs. Saunders could not be more dissimilar and Follows finds the humanity, the humour and the integrity in them both despite the fact that Ellen, as a shy, young domestic, tends to fade into the background while Mrs. Saunders, a rebellious, promiscuous woman of the world, dominates every scene she is in. It is in the second act, however, as Lin, a free-thinking lesbian single parent, that Follows shines brightest. She has such strength and conviction, while it is still obvious that Lin is damaged and struggling against her own issues and insecurities. Lin’s humanity bursts from every pore of Follows’ body in a fascinating performance. Ann-Marie MacDonald is heartbreaking as young Edward, a boy who craves attention from his crush, Harry, and longs for the permission to play with his sister’s abandoned doll. MacDonald’s Edward feels every possible emotion in Cloud 9 and shines with vulnerability and innocence and shows how quickly adults can snuff out a child’s exuberant light and how dangerous this is for their bourgeoning sense of self. She is equally brilliant in Act II as Betty, a woman who prattles incessantly without saying anything worthwhile and who must work to learn how to engage herself in a world she allowed a man to take from her, and to acquaint herself with the woman she allowed her husband to suppress. Watching Ann-Marie MacDonald throughout this play is to watch a true master of the craft of performance.
“Cloud 9,” as Alisa Palmer writes in her programme notes, “is a phrase that evokes utopia and the pursuit of happiness,” and it makes me incredibly happy that such a thought-provoking Canadian production of this play is being produced in Toronto by David Mirvish. They are “simply divine in their silver Cloud 9.”
Cloud 9 plays at the Panasonic Theatre (651 Yonge Street, Toronto) until February 21st, 2010. For more information please visit www.cloud9toronto.com or www.mirvish.com or phone TicketKing at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333. If you would like to take advantage of special discount tickets (and really, who wouldn’t!?), book online and use the promo code CHURCHILL.