Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
A couple of seasons back, Soulpepper put on a production of well-respected (if notably unusual) British playwright Caryl Churchill‘s Top Girls, helmed by talented director Alisa Palmer, and everyone thought it was the bee’s knees. So much so, in fact, that it won Palmer that year’s Dora Award for Outstanding Direction, and was remounted the following season. Now, a new production of Churchill’s surreal sex farce Cloud 9 has opened at the Panasonic Theatre, reuniting Palmer’s direction with Churchill’s words, and featuring a fantastic cast, including Top Girls alums Megan Follows and Ann-Marie MacDonald. If you enjoyed Top Girls, do yourself a big favour and book a ticket to Cloud 9, which is as smart, funny, and just plain strange as the Soulpepper hit. If you’re completely unfamiliar with Churchill’s work, it’s also definitely worth picking up a ticket, but we feel you should be warned that some aspects of the show might seem jarringly unnatural if you’re used to more traditional theatre fare.
How’s this for a plot summary: Act One is set in Africa in 1880, focusing on a colonial British family (husband Clive, wife Betty, children Edward and Victoria, grandmother Maud, nanny Ellen, African “boy” servant Joshua, and adventurous neighbours Harry and Mrs. Saunders). Act Two is set in England in 1980, yet features the same family, aged only twenty-five years. Further complicating matters is the casting: in Act One, Betty is played by a man, Edward is played by a woman, Joshua is played by a white actor, Maud by a black one, and Victoria, by a doll. And in Act Two, they all switch. Yet, if you think any of that sounds terribly high concept, perhaps even snobbishly inaccessible, you’d be 100% wrong. Churchill’s script is very smart, but it’s also very, very funny, and its broad humour is the perfect antidote to any potential inaccessibility. And the casting forces the audience to take a long, hard look at the various inequities that existed in both time periods. Clandestine homosexual encounters are enacted by opposite sex actors. Heterosexual marriage is represented by two men. A woman who needs to “stay in her place” is played by a man in a dress (and Judith Bowden’s revealing costume design never allows us to forget that we are, in fact, watching a man in a dress).
This is a wonderful play for actors, and each member of the cast gets to be hilarious in at least two separate roles. Evan Buliung is terribly sympathetic both as matriarch Betty in Act One, and her gay son Edward in Act Two. David Jansen is a riot as domineering father Clive in Act One, and deranged preschooler Cathy in Act Two. But perhaps the most memorable performance comes from Ann-Marie MacDonald, so spry and youthful as Act One’s younger Edward, and then so hilarious as Act Two’s grandmother Betty, who finally seems to be on the road to self-actualization.
It’s rare to see a piece of theatre so brilliantly conceived and perfectly realized. If you can open your mind up to the idea of seeing something that’s just a little bit different, you’re in for a real treat!
Cloud 9 runs at the Panasonic Theatre until February 21.