By Caryl Churchill. Dir. Genevieve Thompson. With ensemble cast. Infamous Commonwealth Theatre at National Pastime Theater.
The term genderfuck could well have been invented for this 1979 play—except Churchill does things to gender more perverse than "fuck" would suggest. A British family lives in 1880 colonial Africa—proper enough, but the mother is played by a man, the son by a woman and everyone is secretly screwing those he or she shouldn't. Skip forward to 1980 London, where we meet the same family, only for them it's just 25 years later. Now the casting turns (mostly) gender-appropriate, even while the characters live in carnal modern times. They have sex freely but are no freer of sexuality's conundrums than their uptight ancestors.
Churchill's fascinating conceit is that by divorcing bodies from their usual social roles, she lays bare those roles' ridiculous artifice, like when the whisker-faced mother (a compelling Stephen Dunn) professes her/his feminine fragility. Yet, without a production that gets Cloud 9's tone—both completely serious and absolutely not—this remarkable work by thinking-person's author Churchill can seem like an airless intellectual exercise. Thompson tackles Cloud 9 in journeyman fashion; she attends to each moment well enough, but neglects the overall spirit and, strangely, approaches the radical sexual politics timidly. When the 19th-century characters wander into the 20th century and the pith-helmeted adventurer and the modern son's lover cruise each other, a moment that should be visually and mentally dissonant doesn't jar us at all. Thompson treats this queer play—queer in every sense—as though it were hopelessly straight.—Novid Parsi