Sometimes plays that speak strongly of their own moment can’t withstand the test of time. Other times, though, a decades-old drama speaks so lucidly today that it reminds us afresh how vast theater’s possibilities really are. This is the case with Cloud Nine, Caryl Churchill’s incisive, ironic 1979 play about the intersecting depredations of colonialism, racism, and sexism — now at the Atlantic Theater Company under James Macdonald’s expert direction.
This transhistorical comedy opens in Victorian-era Africa, on a British family led by the staunchly imperialist Clive (Clarke Thorell). But in Churchill’s Brechtian fantasia, identity is always drag: Clive’s wife, Betty, is played by a man (Chris Perfetti), his son by a woman (Brooke Bloom), and his African servant by a white actor (Sean Dugan). As they pop Christmas crackers on the lawn, a native revolt erupts offstage, and everyone’s desires — sexual, social, and violent — spill wildly over the boundaries their culture tries so anxiously to enforce. In Act Two the same characters inhabit late-1970s London, a moment when second-wave feminism and gay rights have ostensibly opened new freedoms but sexual repression and colonial violence (Northern Ireland) continue to exert frightening gravitational pull.
In the hands of this excellent ensemble, Churchill’s clear-eyed, darkly comic play shows us how we enact our racial and gender identities, how one form of repression begets another — and just how revelatory revivals can be.
By Caryl Churchill
Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street