Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9” at Custom Made Theatre

Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9” at Custom Made Theatre

Carol Benet

Some plays become outdated.  Not so for Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9” now at Custom Made Theatre Co.  through the years since it was first produced in 1979 it has only become more relevant.

When “Cloud 9” first appeared the gay theme was still closeted.  Now it is taken for granted and even celebrated.  The characters in “Cloud 9” in two time frames, 1880 and 1990, are right out of British TV comedy.  The first act takes place in Africa at a colonial estate with ex-pats and one native servant prance around and lust for each other.  The second act is the same story but characters are “out” and can talk about their proclivities.

 But the play is more than a ramp in Oscar Wilde land.  It is about the ruling class versus those below it, families, children and parents, lovers and people, some with loyalties to the Crown.  Churchill’s plays were deemed postmodern in the height of this art movement’s popularity in the 70s and 80s.  Posstmodern means fragmentation, appropriation and historical pastiche.  Architecture where it was first seen was followed by novels, paintings, sculptures, theater starting appearing in this genre where there  elements became all mashed together as if chopped in a Cuisinart.

The first act of “Cloud 9” takes place in Africa in the estate of Clive, (Evan Winet), a prototype of stuffed shirt colonialist patriarch.  His wife Betty (Mario Mazzetti) is obedient and subservient.  Their son Edward (Alejandra Wahi) plays with dolls, much to his super faux masculine father’s disdain.  The governess Ellen (Renee Rogoff) is a target for Clive as well as Betty’s affections.  She magically transforms into the neighbor’s widowed Mrs. Sounders, another object of the spouses’ desires.  Changes in gender and characters take place during the entire act and it is up to the audience to keep track of them.

A family friend Harry (Zaya Kolla) comes for a visit from his explorations of the continent.  There is a hidden past between him, Betty as well as the African servant Joshua (Alan Coyne).  With the son Edward mixed in they all become part of the merry-go-round of hanky panky. Betty’s mother Maud (Monica Cappuccino) is properly severe in observing and commenting on all of this.  The stylized acting right out of melodrama of old is hysterical and so are the quick changes between characters.  

Act II takes place 100 years later in a park in London where two mothers are watching their children.  The  4 or 5 year old child of Lin (Rogoff) is Cathy a full-sized man (Winert), in a little girly pink dress.  The other mother Vic (Wahl) sits on the park bench and talks to Lin.  Vic’s husband Martin (Kolla) is supposed to be watching their son as well but when he and Vic observe  him together it is a good opportunity for them to talk about their life that turns into a one-way conversation about him. Vic’s silence and self-restraint while listing to this egotist is priceless. The two park mothers become lesbian lovers.  Jerry (Coyne) , Edward’s (Mazzetti) wandering lover,  also comes to the park and we find out about his escapades in gay-land.  Got it straight?  I hope I do.

So it is a play that describes English life, high and low level, from Victorian era to the present.  And even if this present was almost 40 years ago when the play was first produced, not much has changed:  genres, desires, behaviors.  Everything is out — and more so.

The actors are fabulous, especially because of the demands on them to change sex, ages, personae.  How this tiny 99 seat theater can attract such excellent performers and production team is a wonder.  Allie Moss’s direction, Heather Kenyon’s sets, Candice Liao’s costumes, Everett Elton Bradman’s sound are all top-notch.  With  one character the servant Coyne, dialect coach Rebecca Castilli has trained him first to sound like a native who might have learned English from an Afrikaner and then into a low class Londoner.  Bravi tutti.

The Custom Made Theatre under  Artistic direction of Brian Katz is now 21 years old and it deserves the numerous local theater awards it has won.  It is located at 533 Sutter Street near Union Square where it moved in 2015 from it’s Gough Street location.

Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9” at Custom Made Theatre runs through December 15, 2019.  415 677 9596 or  

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to and all posts by Carol Benet →