November 03, 2007

Cloud nine

I'm having a hard time even knowing where to start in thinking about Cloud nine, the play currently on the mainstage at Knox. It seems particularly difficult to come up with something that isn't just parroting what someone else has told me about what the play's about, which is strange; I don't usually have that problem.

The first act comes across at first as Victorian farce done badly, with the actors not quite playing it straight (the only way to really pull off a sex farce) and overdoing it, with an admixture of high melodrama in the form of occasional stylistic gestures and sound effects. Of course it isn't a Victorian farce, it just plays one on TV—as an intentionally-that-way piece it strikes more of an absurdist pose; the distinction is driven home quite thoroughly when adventurer Harry Bagley lets out his line "Shall we go in a barn and fuck?", the first of many, many thoroughly explicit sexual propositions and advances and descriptions spread throughout this act. Of course, it's all very clandestine, this being (nominally) 19th century British Africa, and the number one observation that I'm apparently supposed to make about act I is that it's all about how repressive the society is. That, at least, is what the director and all the blurbs and flyers tell me. But honestly, the biggest thing that the first act did was to lay out a set of character cutouts (with occasional, fleeting glimpses of a deeper person behind) and, more importantly, of relationship lines drawn between the characters, without losing the audience's interest; it's all just setup for act II.

Insight is often drawn from contrast, whether between here and there, then and now, expectation and outcome, or anything else. In this case, at the start of the second act we get to see the characters and the relationships redistributed among the actors, so that for instance the actor playing Maud, the mother-in-law in the first act, plays her own granddaughter Victoria in the second act (who had been played by a dummy in the first), who in the second act is in the role of daughter, which had been served in the first act by a third character, Betty, who is in both acts and played by a different person in each case. Some of the characters are retained in the second act, while others have analogous, but new, characters inserted in their stead. It meant that for any given situation in the second act, you were casting a line back to the first act, asking what this actor was doing in this situation then, which this character was doing then, and what this relationship role was doing then, an unbelievably rich web of interactions that makes this play one of the ones that just keeps on giving.

It was in the second act that the real acting happened, too. Ariel Lauryn's monologues as Betty, first when she's chattering on nervously because she's leaving her husband, then later as she reflects on her experiences with masturbation, were some truly great character moments that manage to recall the anxieties of all three of Betty, Edward (Ariel's character in the first act), and Maud (the mother-in-law of the first act). I also loved Eli King's "monologue" conversation at his wife; for all that I might have missed this if I hadn't been primed for it, he manages to come across as likeable and sincere in his desire to liberate Victoria—without ever letting her get a word in edgewise.

I definitely didn't think this at the time, but as I reflect on the show, I'm thinking that some of the most interesting work was done by Shane Donegan, who I'd not even seen before on the Knox stage. In act I he plays Joshua, the black African servant, who upon further thought actually seems to be one of the most developed characters in that act. I mean, theme of repression, sure, but this guy has some serious demons floating around back there, and it shows. (I'd also like to know what happened right after the last scene ended—did he shoot and miss, or what? Clive evidently survives, but....) Then in the second act, he plays Gerry, the gay lover, the loose analogue of the first act's adventurer Harry, and manages to be thoroughly unlikable. Except not: as the act goes on and after ongoing thought, it's really not that he's a bad person, not at all actually, but rather that he has an entirely different value set. It is Gerry that has the talk with Betty that lets her come round and officially accept herself and her (extended) family as they are, and that can't really be an accident. In some way I can't quite pin down right now, these characters are framing the narrative in both acts....

Man, that's just the start, really, but I simply must go to bed now if I'm to get up and drive to Springfield in the morning. Hopefully, I'll be inspired to come back to this later, though. I do wish I had a chance to see it again....

"The great need to distinguish Christianity from Buddhism or Science from Not-Science seems born of the desire to separate that which is given Authority from that which is not. The thing is, if you're giving science Authority, you're already beyond the practice of science. (Same for Buddhism and Christianity, strangely enough.)" --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 1:05am on 3 Nov 2007
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