The stage is set the moment you enter the auditorium for The Yale School of Drama's production of Caryl Churchill's gender-bending knock-up "Cloud Nine." The set is a triptych recreating a Museum of Natural History-style diorama. One the left: A great white hunter. In the center: a veranda. On the right, a Victorian parlor. The actors stand motionless, though occasionally quietly shifting their pose, as curtain time nears.
Yes, we're watching a freeze-frame capturing a point in history: A zenith of the British Empire, a time of world domination marked by exceptional cultural hubris as well as a proud, self-conscious primness.
All is not what it seems in the feminist playwright Caryl Churchill's topsy-turvy world. Women are played by men, a femme-identifying son is played by a woman, and a child is embodied by a rag doll - all illuminating Churchill's insights on gender identity and cultural hypocrisy.
Act One takes place in Victorian-era Colonial Africa, where children obey parents, wives obey husbands, houseboys obey their masters, and all honor the masculine ideal of the African explorer. Above all, they each give fealty to the Crown.
Only: Not. Everybody, it seems, it having sex with someone they shouldn't. Dad is imposing himself on the widowed neighbor; the explorer has a thing for the House Boy and the girlish son. The governess is in love with the wife. No surprise: the natives, for reasons that don't need to be enumerated, are restless. The act ends with the closing of a primatively painted Union Jack curtain the blaring of the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen."
Act Two time-travels ahead 100 years, with the delightful innovation that it features the same characters (played by alternate cast members) aged only 25 years. So we're watching rag doll Victoria and gay brother Edward now in their late 20s; and mama Betty, liberated from her two-timing, stiff upper lip hubby, transplanted to London. You almost need a scorecard to keep track of the players and their roles (both in the theatrical sense and their gender identities).
The covers have been ripped off the sexploits. The closeted characters of the Victorian Era have been liberated. Now they just have to figure out what it means to be free, a process not without its gags and searing indictments of what we, collectively, have become. The conflict is packed with the kind of gender identity struggles that kept group therapists in business through much of the Eighties.
"Cloud Nine" seemed revolutionary when I saw it during its original off Broadway run directed by Tommy Tune in 1981. I had just returned from working for a year in Kenya, and was ripe for an indictment of British colonialism, and impressionable enough to be wowed by the subversive sexcapades.
I'd never seen anything like it. As inherently British as it was, the gender-bending, time-leaping farce was still somehow relevant to the America of post-Stonewall Christopher Street.
It's the kind of play that induces academic treatises, college productions and earnest after-curtain conversations. It's also a play that can easily appear dated. What seemed revolutionary in 1981 can be very passé in 2013.
The Yale troupe is game for all of it. The actors are MFA candidates at the Yale School of Drama, each with considerable professional and regional credits. They throw themselves into their roles with energy and skill, with nary a misstep. To single any out would not do them service. This Cloud Nine is an ensemble piece in the true sense of the word.
The farce of Act One plays slapsticky, and there are guffaws all around. With a century and a half of hindsight, Victoriana and British colonialism is a too-easy target. What seemed so mind-blowing in 1981 has been dulled by years of Graham Chapman and John Cleese mining a similar vein in PBS reruns. All right then. And now for something completely different.
The lagniappe of Act Two is that through sheer force of will this production emphasizes the human relationships through the muddle of sex play. After all, Churchill's a skilled playwright who is inventive enough to turn the cardboard Victorian storyboards into 20th century people we care about.
Too bad, then, that the creative team cloaked the show with the obvious soundtrack of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" and David Bowie's "Changes." If memory serves, Tommy Tune's production ended with The Temptations' "Cloud Nine." A much better choice.
The ultimate star of the show is the set design. Kate Noll's triptych from Act One is echoed in Act Two, and the center panel from the opening makes a dramatic reappearance in the final moments. Among Noll's credits is her work at the Sundance Director's Lab, where she workshopped the film "Beasts of the Southern Wild." The set is a major reason the show transcends whatever time-stamped baggage it brings with it, as does Margot Bordelon's crisp and well-paced direction.