The best way to make sense of Throughline Theatre Company’s Cloud 9, the 1979 play by the controversial British playwright Caryl Churchill, is to remember Aristotle’s famous admonition regarding dramatic characters: Be consistent, or if inconsistent, be so consistently.
This is meant to be provocative theater, or at least it was in its 1970s milieu. It has men playing women, whites playing blacks, the enjambment of space and time, and the often gratuitous employment of obscene language. Not to mention that every actor plays at least two parts.
But somehow, all of this comes together and, because of its consistent unpredictability, works. It’s like looking at a Hieronymus Bosch painting — if you focus in on one section too closely, you’ll lose the impact of the overall effect.
Director Edwin Lee Gibson holds the pieces together throughout what could easily become a mess of a production. He instills the characters with a blasé style that mitigates the script’s constant potential for hyperbole. For example, when Harry, played adroitly by George Saulnier, says, “I’m writing a novel about women from the woman’s point of view,” it’s delivered with such insouciance that the audience erupts in laughter. Gibson does the same with sexual dialogue, making it sound contemptuous of its own lewdness.
Don’t ask why Act I is set in Victorian colonial Africa, while Act II jumps ahead a century, to a London park in 1979 — yet the characters age only 25 years. Such matters are better left to undergraduate seminars, or coffeehouse hookah debates. Perhaps it’s just another case of “postmodern-theater syndrome” — where forms are violated simply for the sake of violating forms.
Besides the smart direction, this Cloud 9 succeeds with the help of Paige Borak’s astute lighting, especially in the contrapuntal scenes of Act II, and Shannon Knapp’s atmospheric sound designs, which help bridge the dimensional shifts in time and place. Also, Knapp’s pre- and post-show soundtracks offer some delicious selections from the prog-rock era.
Vance Weatherly’s scenery is simple and effective, which is what you want with a crazy play like this. The costumes, designed by Madrid Vinarski, are evocative rather than ornate, and allow the actors — especially in the cross-gender roles — to amplify their personas, instead of being overwhelmed by them.
The strong cast makes intelligent choices with characters that could easily appear cartoonish. In one of the most demanding dual parts, Liam Ezra Dickinson doesn’t overplay the female role of Betty in Act I, nor embellish the gay Gerry in Act II. Tracy D. Turner is compelling as Maud/Lin. Victor Aponite jumps from the staid, adult Joshua to the 5-year-old Cathy with impish joy, while Jalina K. McClarin, Malic Williams and Maeve Harten are vibrant in their multiple roles.
Cloud 9 is like a strange collision between Gilbert and Sullivan and Eugene Ionesco. It may not make logical sense, but it does make for entertaining and comic theatre.