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Sex and social ills dominate 'Cloud 9'

This play wants you to think about sex. Every type of sex, it seems, between nearly every conceivable combination of people. Live Arts' production of Caryl Churchill's "Cloud 9" challenges the audience's comfort zones, boundaries of propriety and, most of all, its endurance.

"Cloud 9" is not a play for the faint of heart or the easily offended, to be sure. But it is a bold look at sexual politics and a biting social critique, not to mention a lot of fun.

Directors Betsy Rudelich Tucker and Satch Huizenga push a seven-member cast playing 16 characters to elevate sexual innuendo, reaching the highest level of dramatic speech. The ride begins in 1879, on a Victorian estate in British colonial Africa. The lengthy Act I, which seems to be all about stamina in more ways than one, stages an exhausting romp through the sex lives of everyone present in the household of Clive (Chris Patrick), a British military official stationed in Africa. The script takes the idea of a love triangle and stretches it almost to its breaking point - eight sides instead of three.

Clive harps on the importance of family while freely screwing around with the first woman who happens by: Mrs. Saunders (Missel Leddington). His wife Betty (played brilliantly by a cross-dressing Ian Unterman) wants to cheat on Clive with his friend Harry Bagley (Mark Valahovic), who turns out to be gay. Harry is the hinge of the sexual octagon: He is the object of affection for Betty as well as for her young, sexually confused son Edward (Elisabeth Roccoforte); a lover to the black servant Joshua (played by the white Stephen Getman); a less-than-willing groom to Ellen (also played by Missel Leddington), Edward's governess who sticks around only because she lusts for Betty; and an object of fantasy for Betty's mother, Maud (Kater Gordon). All the while, Harry struggles with his own homosexuality and his desire for Clive.

Curtain Call

"Cloud 9"
Written by: Caryl Churchill
Showing at:LIve Arts
Jan 18 - Feb 2

Just keeping track of all of these relationships is a challenge in itself, and the play becomes dizzying with the added effect of several layers of gender inversions. It becomes hard to figure out, especially given the fast pace of the performance, exactly what it means when a woman playing a boy lusts after a man who desires the boy's father but who is wanted by the man who plays his mother. Gender bending doesn't cover it; gender "Twister" is more like it. All clear lines dissolve.

These complexities are only the beginning. In Act II, the action shifts to 1979 London, where we reunite with Edward and Betty, who are somehow only 25 years older. This structurally experimental twist is what makes Churchill's script defiantly unique, but it raises the bar for the cast. They handle it remarkably well, but Churchill may have pushed a tad too much with the demands of negotiating this transition; at times, the linkages and continuities between characters and actors are more than one can digest.

Perhaps the most interesting consequence of this structural move is that Act I proves considerably more offensive than Act II; in 1979 London, the characters have a hard time seeming as extreme - though the drunken threesome of Edward (now played by Patrick), his married sister Victoria (now played by Roccoforte) and the surprisingly self-confident lesbian Lin (Gordon) comes close.

And as the characters become less excessive, they become more human - less like props in a sexual farce and more like confused, torn, three-dimensional characters inhabiting the messiness of a modern emotional landscape. Sex in Act I doesn't need to go much beyond lust; it's hilarious and biting at the same time, but it still seems removed, staged. By Act II, sex isn't just a circus anymore; it becomes disturbingly real.

This is the play's highest achievement. "Cloud 9" spends much of its time challenging us to be confident and liberated enough to appreciate the comedy of the characters' sexual escapades - virtually daring us to laugh. But by the play's end, it's almost daring us not to.

The play is difficult, without doubt, and almost too busy at times. But it moves quickly enough that any moments of difficulty melt before they hit the ground. What remains, at the very least, is a roaring good time; at best, it's a crucial look in the mirror.


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