Watching Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9” could give you a real case of the Stroop effect. This piece of neuroscience is why it’s harder to read aloud the name of a color if the text is printed in a different one. If the word “blue” is written in green ink, you have to work harder to process it. Churchill’s first act twists your brain like that: She has men playing women, grown women playing little boys, white men playing black men, young ladies playing old women. The incongruence grows as we see that this part of the show is set in the overly restrictive environment of a late 19th century Victorian colony in Africa. And it hits a fever pitch right about the time Harry, a uniformed officer, turns to a male servant and casually asks him if he’d like to go to the barn and fuck.
Churchill is a master of deliberate contradiction. Her 1978 play delights in the explosively performative. She insists that we’re all constantly performing to some degree our age, our race, and especially our gender. And if that’s true, then it follows that there must also be an audience for whom we’re compelled to construct our show. Enter the White Man, first in the form of Clive (played by Matthew Lindsay Payne). At first it seems that Clive is the butt of Churchill’s joke, since we immediately see that he can’t detect the truth right in front of his face. But as the first act progresses, it becomes clear that she intends something more sinister. Everyone around Clive has to twist and turn to accommodate his very narrow worldview, and what lies outside its borders must be crushed to fit within it. His family’s show is for him, always, even if it makes them abjectly miserable.
Here’s where Churchill’s dizzying casting drives home the point. Clive’s wife, Betty, swans across the stage, fanning herself with horror at the suggestion that she might have legs under her skirts. She’s the picture of dainty, subservient femininity in every way except that she’s played by a man (a very on-point Tavish Forsyth). Poor little Edward (Barbara Madison Hauck) is cruelly treated by his father because of his “girly” affectations, but we can plainly see that “Edward” is a grown woman, so it doesn’t track.
Joshua, played by Nick Fruit, is Clive’s African servant, who Clive describes: “You’d hardly notice the fellow was black.” And indeed we would not, as Fruit is white. Joshua himself says: “My skin is black but oh my soul is white” and for him, appearing as “white” as possible, and drawing a distinction between himself and other Africans, is a matter of literal survival, as we learn that local indigenous people, including Joshua’s own family members, are being put to death at the direction of the white imperialists. Clive is sexist, homophobic, and racist, all of which Churchill suggests serves the same purpose: to repress the Other and uphold his own supremacy.
Add to all this that Churchill wrote a quick sexual farce, so it’s deliberately hard to keep everyone straight (pun intended). There are marital affairs, cunnilingus in the drawing room, shocking admissions of illicit desire. If Churchill can disrupt our expectations and perceptions, she will.
Act two jumps forward 100 years in time, and the characters age too, albeit at a slower rate. They’re about 25 years older, and the sexual repression that fuels the first act has given way to a newfound sense of liberation—in other words, the characters are experiencing a significant cultural jump within a quarter of a lifetime. But formative experiences are hard to shake, and as much as we may try to resist the horribly outdated attitudes of our parents, they sometimes seem hardwired into our DNA.
Take, for example, Betty’s daughter, Victoria (Kristina Szilagyi). Victoria is a literal doll in the first act; inanimate, completely without voice or autonomy. In the second, we see her struggle to escape this learned passivity, particularly in her relationship with her husband, Martin, played by Jonas David Grey. Grey almost walks off with the show with his hilarious delivery of lines like “I’m writing a novel about women from the women’s point of view.” He’s the kind of man who is so busy mansplaining to women about letting them talk that he forgets to actually let them talk. Martin’s first act mirror, Harry Bagley (also played by Grey), is an explorer who “explores” everyone and everything. Martin is exploring too, trying on the suit of a “woke” guy, until it turns out he might have to give up some of his unearned privilege, at which he immediately balks: “I was all for the ‘60s when liberation just meant fucking.”
Churchill dives into how disorienting an evolving social structure can be, how it’s hard to break free of oppressive rules because there’s comfort in the familiar, even though we may hate ourselves for indulging in that comfort. Lin (a grounded Kathryne Daniels) embraces a sexuality that her first act counterpart, Ellen (also Daniels), is denied, but she doesn’t know how to express it on her own terms: “I changed who I sleep with, I can’t change everything.” Edward (now played by Forsyth) and his lover, Gerry (Fruit, relaxed and strong), fight over the idea of marriage: Edward yearns to be not just a partner, but a wife, and Gerry rejects that dynamic in their relationship. Betty (now Hauck) free falls in the aftermath of her separation from Clive, unsure who she is in the absence of a man to perform for.
The script is not without flaws. It’s a little overlong, for one thing, and shows its age in places. Why a play from the past has been resurrected is always a question, even more so when it’s a play whose once-radical politics have perhaps not held up well 40 years later. Churchill attempts to create context for a white man to play Joshua, for example, but it’s difficult to justify, especially because she doesn’t really address race again after the first act. No matter how you slice it, a white actor playing a black character is never going to avoid the wincing overtones of a minstrel show (especially considering that Churchill herself is white). She also draws some outdated lines between queerness and pedophilia: Edward is sexually abused in his youth by his uncle, and because Churchill never clearly underlines subsequent trauma or fallout from this, it seems like she uses their relationship as just another indicator that Edward has been obviously queer since childhood.
But director Dr. Natka Bianchini does restrain the show, and insofar as its central caricatured conceit can be subtle, the production resists muging and winking; the acting is rarely overly emphasized or cartoonish. The cast walks the line, at times brilliantly, between character and caricature, grounding the show and saving it from a descent into the full-stop offensive or ridiculous.
As we’ve seen a number of cleavings between generations lately—evidenced in debates between Civil Rights Leaders and the new vanguard, Black Lives Matter, or between younger and older women it comes to certain feminist principles—what feels outdated to some feels progressive to others. Maybe the problem is not so much with the play itself, but its audiences, some of whom will see this as cutting-edge commentary instead of what it really is: a decades-old piece of radical theater. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it is a different one.
“Cloud 9,” written by Caryl Churchill and directed by Natka Bianchini for Iron Crow Theatre, runs through Feb. 4 at Baltimore Theatre Project. For more information, visit ironcrowtheatre.org.