Near the beginning of “Cloud 9,” a British colonial makes a statement to his wife about their time in Africa: “We are not in this country to enjoy ourselves.”
Luckily, the same doesn’t hold true for those seated in the audience of Richmond Triangle Players’ current offering. Instead, they’ll probably find themselves laughing and gasping with surprise at how this time-traveling farce cleverly and audaciously inverts cultural norms. Written by playwright Caryl Churchill, “Cloud 9” humorously explores the roles that sex, gender, race and patriarchy play in society.
Set against Vinnie Gonzales’ stylishly ragged Union Jack backdrop, the play’s first act takes place in Africa during the Victorian era. Clive (Larry Cook) is the administrator of a colony and the head of his family. He manages family and servants with a patrician air: Father definitely thinks he knows best. His wife Betty (Matt Bloch) is subservient to his wishes, though she longs to run off with Harry Bagley (Andrew Firda), a dashing explorer who comes to stay with them near Christmas.
For his part, Harry is trying to stick his flag in any person who will have it, including African servant Joshua (Caleb Wade), and Clive and Betty’s young son Edward (Laine Satterfield). The cast is rounded out by Jessi Johnson as Betty’s mother and Jennie Meharg, playing double duty as both Edward’s governess and the widower Mrs. Saunders. Though much talk is given to concern over the rioting natives, the characters would do better to examine the dangers residing within their own walls.
As mandated by Churchill’s script, Betty is played by a man and Joshua is played by a white actor, casting across gender and race to make the point that these people lacked representation in society at this time. Director Rusty Wilson further emphasizes this point by casting Johnson, an African-American actress, in a traditionally white role.
Act two takes place in 1979 London. Though taking place a century later than act one, only 25 years have passed for the characters. Edward (now played by Cook) is a gay man in search of love. His younger sister Victoria (Meharg) is considering leaving her husband Martin (Firda) for her lesbian lover Lin (Johnson). Betty (Satterfield) is now on her own, and feels sexually liberated for the first time in her life. In the modern era, women and sexual minorities are now the drivers of societal change, though echoes of act one and its patriarchal view of history still permeate how the world functions.
The ensemble of actors does great work throughout, with Cook, Meharg and Firda milking the best laughs out of the first act. Johnson is appropriately haughty as the mother-in-law character, and Wade’s portrayal of the servant has an undercurrent of frustration. In their tag-team effort, Block and Satterfield make you feel for Betty, the emotional centerpiece of the story.
Under Wilson’s assured direction, the play’s absurdist humor finds ground while still focusing on the stories of its characters. Churchill’s paralleling of colonial oppression and sexual oppression comes through, and though the script touches on weighty themes like incest and pedophilia, it’s handled in surprisingly funny ways.
Lynn West’s costumes — especially Betty’s in the first act — convey the periods well, and Erica Hughes’ dialect direction gives voice to some of the best British accents heard on a Richmond stage. My one quibble is with Lucian Restivo’s sound design, which was mixed too low on the night I attended.
Though we live in the era of same-sex marriage and transgender celebrities, the second act’s 1979 setting feels like today. Nearly 40 years on, Churchill’s script is surprisingly fresh in its views on the fluidity of sexuality, and because it makes the story about its characters instead holier-than-thou moralizing, it still contains a powerful message. S
“Cloud 9” plays through Oct. 21 at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave. For information, visit rtriangle.org or call 346-8113.