Caryl Churchill has written plays for radio, television and the legitimate theater for more than 50 years. Her body of work has brought her to almost universal acclaim as probably the most respected woman dramatist in the English-speaking world. I say “almost” because arguments rage and opinions vary. Churchill can polarize.
Lately, the British playwright has been less prolific, but her recent “Love and Information” (a 100-character, 58-scene exploration of the human condition) and the jazz opera “Hotel” (written with collaborators, a newfound joy), have earned their share of laurels. Churchill continues to change and challenge, constantly experimenting with what plays could be, might be. At age 74, she’s as outrageous as ever.
Western New York and environs have seen little of Churchill’s work. Not surprisingly, Dan Shanahan’s edgy Torn Space tried one of her one-acts a season or two ago. The Shaw Festival, risk-takers on occasion, had a go with the topical “Serious Money,” a stock market satire written in rhyming couplets. Yet, Churchill has mostly been a stranger.
Until now. The New Phoenix Theatre has just opened Churchill’s early career sex farce, “Cloud 9,” a wild, erotic, gender-bending story that crosses oceans and centuries. It’s a hilarious, obscene romp populated with unforgettable, cartoonish characters, situational foolishness, sight gags and chase, but leaves room for messages: know thyself, respect others, ditch preconceived notions about people, be on the alert for double standards.
All of this is in Churchillian disguise – sexual repression in the Victorian age in parallel with sexual confusion in the “Me Decade” of the 1970’s – and in need of sorting out. The story begins in colonial British Africa and we meet an isolated family: blowhard, womanizing paterfamilias Clive, his unhappy wife, Betty, baby Victoria and gay teen son, Edward. The natives are restless. Guests arrive, fellow Britishers, seeking safety. To underscore the endless list of Victorian expectations – male domination, female subservience, family roles in general, servitude – Churchill demands that the casting goes like this: Betty is played by a man, the black servant Joshua by a white and Edward by a woman. Then there’s a mother-in-law, a governess, a widow, an explorer, Harry Bagley.
Everyone is sex-starved and there is much furtive mix-and-match. Everybody’s fair game.
Then comes Act II – introduced by Katy Perry’s moving-on anthem, “Wide Awake” – in London now, 100 years later but actually, the characters – some returnees, some new and gender-correct for the most part – are only 25 years older and caught in changing times and social change. Victorian attitudes still haunt. Sex is still a hot topic, gays and lesbians provide a good deal of the energy. The colonial leftovers, Betty in particular, have finally come to grips with her past hang-ups. Edward and Victoria? Not so much.
Director Kelli Bocock-Natale, who always sees more, feels more, hears more, about plays she assembles, has worked yet another miracle at The Phoenix, from inspired casting – Chris Kelly, as Betty, a role for the ages, he’s amazingly, ridiculously perfect – to the breakneck speed of it all and the little moments and asides of foolishness that can only be Bocock-Natale’s additions. She gets wonderful and fresh performances from Richard Lambert (full of lovable if misguided bombast), Steve Copps, Diane Curley, Pamela Rose Mangus (again polished and wise), Kelly Ferguson Moore and Eric Rawski (great fun as the jungle lecher, Harry).
Bocock-Natale can’t entirely save Act II from itself, earlier momentum gone in a sea of talk, what-ifs, second-guesses, love spats and woe. The group, Betty the exception, has nowhere to go. Enough metaphors, already. Any affection that this startlingly dysfunctional group earned earlier, either caught in Victorian dictates or struggling with 20th century freedoms, is lost. “Cloud 9” was much more enjoyable when there was ogling in the outback and panting in the pantry.
There is song, some dance, considerable shock and silly surprises. Loraine O’Donnell’s costume designs help; the night is a complete package.
So, except for some yawns in the late going, we should welcome Caryl Churchill. There’s plenty to choose from in her large and varied dramatic canon. Let’s hope she doesn’t stay away for so long.
Three and 1/2 stars (Out of four)
Presented through Dec. 22 by the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 North Johnson Park. Tickets are $15 to $25. Call 853-1334.