Hartford Stage Nails Challenging, Brilliant 'Cloud 9'

Caryl Churchill's 1977 social satire "Cloud 9" is such an important play, such a brilliant play, such a groundbreaking and eyebrow-raising and jaw-dropping play, that it raises the standards for everybody involved in it.

Case in point: On the night of the show's first preview, Feb. 23, cast member Kate Forbes injured her arm and had to leave the production. Mia Dillon, a Broadway veteran who lives in Fairfield County, was hurriedly brought in to replace her. In the roles of the young boy Edward and the elderly woman Betty, Dillon delivers a performance that is so deep, so balanced, so lived-in that it's simply astonishing that she jumped into the project without prior preparation. Dillon's park-bench monologue about discovering masturbation late in life is perfectly modulated, every quiet moment carefully thought through.

Mark H. Dold, the off-Broadway star of "Freud's Last Session" and a company member of Barrington Stage in the Berkshires for over a dozen seasons, is someone who prepared judiciously for this production, having said he had wanted to do this play since being handed a script in an acting program decades ago. Dold plays the huffy old-world British general Clive in Act One and the hyperactive 5-year-old girl Cathy in Act Two. Both his roles are loud and physical, but he unleashes a different energy for each of the two distinct parts of this profound, mulch-faceted comedy/drama.

The roles in "Cloud 9"— several of them asking actors to act against their biological genders and ages — are highly demanding. The situations are genuinely provocative. The political metaphors are grand. A play about sex, "Cloud 9" is also about domination, patriotism, tribalism, bullying, exploration and self-worth.

Dillon and Dold are stand-outs, but Tom Pecinka does a neat job of playing a strong beautiful woman in the the first act and a gentle gay man in the second. Emily Gunyou Halaas brings depth and charm and warmth to the role of Victoria, who we see leave her husband to settle down with her brother Edward and her lesbian friend Lin. (In the first act of "Cloud 9," Victoria is played by a ventriloquist's dummy.) William John Austin has two roles — African servant, sexual predator — which benefit from his ability to glare menacingly and talk in a creepy deadpan. Chandler Williams has to handle what are perhaps the most cartoonish characters in the play, the brash explorer Harry Bagley and the '70s sensitive-male stereotype Martin, but breaks away from the lunacy to play piano for some impressive full-cast musical numbers.

"Cloud 9" can be challenging. Its frank dialogue can be shocking, and in a deeper way than, say, "Book of Mormon." The play draws contrasts between the repressive sexual behavior of the late 1800s and the much more openly expressed physical desires of a century later. There is talk of child abuse and incest. There are brazen sexual overtures and also scenes in which sex has been sadly denied and withheld.

There is also the wonderfully theatrical conceit of having several of the characters in the first act (set in British Colonial Africa during the Victorian era) return for the second act (set in a London park and playground in the 1970s), having aged only 25 years while the world has shifted around them for nearly a century.

What I find most remarkable about "Cloud 9," a play I've seen many times over the years (mostly in college productions, but also the magnificent 1979 off-Broadway production directed by Tommy Tune) is how little it has dated. The language we use to discuss sexual identity has evolved; the vocabulary has expanded well beyond the words Churchill's characters use. Yet "Cloud 9" still has the power to alarm and enlighten. It is still exciting and inspirational.

"Cloud 9" has a special place in theater history, and Caryl Churchill is justly considered by many to be one of the world's greatest living playwrights. For Elizabeth Williamson to choose this script as the first play she's directed at Hartford Stage (after nearly five years with the theater, first as its director of New Play Development and since 2015 as its associate artistic director) is a statement of courage and commitment. Her production is confident, cocky even, performed on stagy wooden platforms within striking metal frameworks (scenic design by Nick Vaughan), but without that staginess affecting the performances.

The show is so together, so harmonic, so orgasmic, so clear in its expression of the play's voice and values, that the only question left to ask is "What took you so long?" Let's not wait another 40 years for Hartford Stage to attempt a Churchill play. Keep aiming for the clouds.

CLOUD 9 by Caryl Churchill, directed by Elizabeth Williamson, is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through Sunday. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $90. 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org.

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