Caryl Churchill Questions British Gender Imperialism
by Patricia L. Morin
In “Cloud 9,” first played in 1979, famed British playwright Caryl Churchill slaps us in the face with gender identity.
At Custom Made Theatre, the cloud-like painted floor conveys a feeling of emptiness. An abstract wooden hanging covers most of the back wall. The small stage, divided by multiple platforms, opens the intimate space to seven first-rate actors.
The background music combines a Pandora mix of modern rock and classical, making us wonder what to expect. Adele’s rock song is followed by classical music.
In Act One, in British colonial Africa, sexual romps and fluid sexual attractions emerge in the patriarchal head of household, misogynistic Clive (magnificent Evan Winet). Haughty imperialist Clive lusts after his neighbor, Mrs. Sanders (powerful Renee Rogoff).
But Mrs. Sanders lusts after Clive’s wife Betty (versatile Mario Mazetti). Cross-gender casting is the rule for groundbreaking playwright Churchill, to our great delight and fun.
Men play women, and women play men, signifying the breakdown of traditional sexual identification. Gender conflicts rule, as feminist Churchill unfolds Clive’s lust, which turns quickly to fear. Ridiculous Clive announces: “Feminism is contagious!”
His wife, modest Betty (male Mazetti) tries to soothe Ellen, her maid (Rogoff) about her infatuation. Betty warbles, “You don’t feel what you think you do. It’s the loneliness here.” Sexual identity is questioned through the negation of feelings in colonial Africa.
And the Brits, as colonial masters, hold the power to negate the Africans’ feelings. Clive defines Africa as he does his underlying fear of women, who “threaten what is best in us.” He sees women and non-English as “treacherous.”
In Act Two, jumping from 1800 to 1900, the actors switch roles. Betty, (now wistful Monica Cappuccini) has left Clive. Betty searches for the self she lost to her overpowering husband.
Churchill spotlights male bullying in Betty’s young granddaughter, Cathy (male Winet), who has trouble at a playground. Lesbian mother Vic (Rogoff) moves us with her deep anger at the child abuse. But she is confused, screaming at the unseen assailant.
Betty’s gay son (Mazetti) and his lover, handsome Gerry (Alan Coyne) question their attachment to men. Gerry, always serious, touches us with his loneliness in the midst of sexual liberation.
With the advent of the Women’s March, now we fight for equality as a whole person, not just sexual roles. Our fight has moved on to equal employment, pay, and benefits. LGBTQ and survivor’s rights have blossomed from Churchill’s first seedlings.
Like Elizabeth Warren, women persist in their quest for equality on all levels. “Cloud 9” has provokes us to reevaluate our gender, sexual identity, and gender equality. Now, we demand total equality.
Director Allie Moss and her six superb actors deliver a moving and timely drama, showcasing Churchill’s prophetic union of sexual politics and male domination. Shake off your chains at Custom Made, asap.
“Cloud 9” by Caryl Churchill, directed by Allie Moss, at Custom Made Theatre, San Francisco, through Sunday, December 15, 2019. Info: custommade.org
Cast: Monica Cappuccini, Alan Coyne, Zaya Kolia, Mario Mazzetti, Renee Rogoff, Alejandra Wahl, and Evan Winet.
Banner photo: Renee Rogoff & Mario Mazzetti (Ellen and Betty).