'Cloud 9': Cross-Gender Casting Keeps This Tale of Sexual Politics Fresh

Editor's note: Actress Mia Dillon is replacing Kate Forbes in the role of  Edward. Forbes took a bad fall while exiting the stage during a rehearsal and underwent surgery. This story was written before that injury.

Hartford Stage is on "Cloud 9." It's a rarefied, heady, feeling that comes from working on the classic, elastic, timely play by playwright and activist Caryl Churchill.

"Cloud 9," which uses outrageous comedy and heavy drama to capture profound cultural shifts in 20th-century England (and beyond), gets a major new production at Hartford Stage through March 19.

The original production of "Cloud 9," staged by the Joint Stock theater company at the Darlington College of Arts in Devon, England, in 1979, is the stuff of legend. Joint Stock, which would further the careers of such important playwrights as David Hare and Howard Brenton as well as Churchill, developed new techniques for writers and actors to jointly create new work through collaborative research and constant rewrites.

Those methods are still used today. Mark Wing-Davey and playwright Sarah Ruhl developed "Scenes from Court Life," which had its premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in September, through the Joint Stock Project Wing-Davey oversees at New York University's Tisch School for the Arts.

In an interview last fall, Wing-Davey — a former Joint Stock company member who directed the premiere of Churchill's "Mad Forest" in 1991 — describes "Cloud 9" concisely as "a workshop about sexual politics in the modern age."

In the late 1970s, "Cloud 9" was contemporary, confrontational and cathartic. First produced while Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister — and, as an off-Broadway hit in 1981, during the Ronald Reagan presidency — "Cloud 9" felt of-the-moment. In the hands of a lesser playwright and ensemble, it could have been a quickly dated period piece about sexual and social revolutions of the 1970s. Yet "Cloud 9" has retained its edge and its immediacy. Wing-Davey calls it "real relevance within the event of the performance."

Hartford Stage's associate artistic director Elizabeth Williamson studied with Wing-Davey in London, and assisted director JoAnne Akalaitis on a Chicago production of Churchill's adaptation of the Greek tragedy "Thyestes" in 2007. "I've always loved her plays," Williamson says of Churchill. "I've read everything."

"Cloud 9" is the first play Williamson has directed at Hartford Stage, having worked primarily as a producer, dramaturg and translator since joining the theater as its director of New Play Development four and a half years ago. She was promoted to the associate artistic director position in 2015 by Hartford Stage's Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak.

Several different Churchill scripts were considered, but since "Hartford Stage has never done a Caryl Churchill play," Williamson said in a phone interview last month, "Darko said, 'Let's start with one of the iconic ones.'"

Williamson says she's never seen a production of "Cloud 9," but "I've read it many times. It's interesting to read it in this political climate." Rediscovering the script led her to read about current theories of gender fluidity and child-raising. She's also been listening to old Patti Smith albums.

Williamson has envisioned a production of "Cloud 9" that she says "draws on theatrical traditions. It starts in a music hall/variety theater world, with a big fake proscenium stage, painted backdrops and a piano." The first half of "Cloud 9" is set during the Victorian era, in a comically exaggerated, male-dominated vision of British Colonial Africa. "The second act," Williamson explains, "is Caryl Churchill's version of naturalism. The big question [scenic designer] Nick Vaughan and I asked ourselves is 'How do you go from Act One to Act Two?'"

In her introduction to the published script, Churchill writes that "the second act is set in London in 1979 — this is where I wanted the play to end up, in the changing sexuality of our own time."

The acts take place 100 years apart, in two distinct periods of British history, but the characters in the play only age 25 years from Act One to Act Two. The characters are also portrayed by different actors in each act, often with cross-gender casting.

Mark H. Dold plays Clive, the patriarch of the Colonial British family in Act One. In Act Two he's Cathy, whom he describes as "an adorable 5-year-old girl, precocious and prone to violence, whose mother has recently come out as a lesbian."

"I thought these characters were the antithesis of each other," Dold said in a phone interview following an early rehearsal of the play last month. "But now I see the similarities. They're both incredibly driven, confident."

Dold, a Yale School of Drama graduate who originated the role of C.S. Lewis in Mark St. Germain's off-Broadway hit, "Freud's Last Session," and spent six years on the soap opera "All My Children," says he's been "seriously obsessed" with "Cloud 9" for decades, ever since one of his teachers at the British American Drama Academy handed him the script and said, "This is a play you should know."

"I've been looking to do this forever," the actor says. "I've been trying to pitch it to Barrington Stage" — the Berkshires theater where he's performed for the past 14 seasons — "for years." The seven-person cast at Hartford Stage also includes Kate Forbes, who played Lady Macbeth at Hartford Stage a couple seasons back and whom Dold once worked with on a production of "Othello." Dold also knows cast member Chandler Williams from doing "King Lear" together. Williams, a trained musician, plays Harry Bagley in "Cloud 9" and also plays the onstage piano.

Elton John Inspires

Music is important to "Cloud 9," which features its own original multiple verse theme song: "It'll be fine/When you reach Cloud 9."

The show's sound designer, Chicago-based composer Andre Pluess, explained in a phone interview how "Cloud 9" will sound. "There's this big patriotic opening song, 'Sons of England.' I had assumed Churchill had lifted the lyrics from an existing anthem. I tried hard, but I could not find it. So I wrote my own British Music Hall tune, an homage to Gilbert and Sullivan. The other big number in the show is 'Cloud 9,' sung in the second act. We know the play takes place in the late 20th century in London, but nothing says that it can't sound like music that had already been around for a while by then. The play felt more like 'Hair' to me than like punk rock. So I went away from the punk or New Wave aesthetic and thought of great '70s British pianists like Al Stewart and Elton John."

Another song in the show, "A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother," is a pop hit written by Harry Miller and Joseph Skelley in 1883.

"The main songs are centered around the piano," Pluess says. "There are only four major musical interludes." He says "Cloud 9" is "nowhere as saturated" with music as last month's Hartford Stage production of "The Comedy of Errors," yet adds that "it felt a bit like doing a Shakespeare play — several songs, with opportunities for others."

"Cloud 9" is about opportunity and harmony. Dold says it's about "people looking to be inclusive, break out of boxes. Oppression is a big thing with this play, about not following the natural order. It's kind of about the death of the straight white man, and what comes after that. It's about people rising up against the establishment, looking for independence. With the current [presidential] administration, it seems more topical to me than ever.

"I was talking to Elizabeth [Williamson], and I said, 'It feels so big. Is it all right that it's that size?' But I learned that there are also these moments of incredible intimacy and introspection. It goes from grandiosity to great doubt. It's hysterically funny, but the more you get to know these characters, there's all this real painful truth going on. It's very real, very human. It keeps this story very contemporary, keeps it out of museum-piece land."

CLOUD 9 by Caryl Churchill, directed by Elizabeth Williamson, is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through March 19. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., with added 2 p.m. matinees on March 4, 8 and 18 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday shows on Feb. 26 and March 19. Tickets are $25-$90. 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a cutline misidentificaton Kate Forbes.

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