Crash Landing from "Cloud 9"

Cloud 9

I can’t appreciate Cloud 9. Playwright Caryl Churchill wears on my patience whenever I see her work performed (though I like reading her plays), and Cloud 9 proved to be a humorous but grating variation on the same pattern. The Boston Conservatory student-actors achieved mixed results, but, overall, the production felt tedious, lacking some of the verve for which the top-ranked theatre conservatory is known. Did they pick the wrong play? Were the actors under-rehearsed? Was this a case of wrong reviewer, wrong time? Either way, I can only recommend seeing some of the actors in future works, and being thankful that this production only ran for a weekend. Maybe if the production had shot for the stars, they would have ended up in the clouds; instead, they were stuck in a tree somewhere in London or Africa.

Act I of Cloud 9 starts in British colonial Africa in the reign of Queen Victoria, while Act II jumps one hundred years to London in the “present day” (read: late 1970s/early 1980s). The characters only age twenty-five years, however. Odd, you say? We’re just beginning. In addition, Churchill has her characters played by different actors in Act I and Act II. Director Patsy Collin-Bandes expounded upon this playmaking and character selection by opening each act with the actors “choosing” their respective roles. And here’s where the genuine performances stopped for most of the actors. In Act I, Clive is the controlling and domineering (read: oppressive and misogynistic) father figure and macho man—Eddie Cavazos, an M.F.A. no less, fails to carry (or swing) the stick. While the play is an ensemble piece from start to finish, certain themes and motifs rest solely on each individual character. The patriarchy of Act I contrasts with the more sexually-liberated Act II, but these dynamics lose their effect with a weak Clive. His irritating accent was only matched by his repetitive vocal inflections.

Though Cavazos was the most notable injury in Act I, Emily Cochrane’s Emily, Clive’s pushover wife, fared little better. Perhaps the writing did not provide Cochrane with enough fuel to reach for the clouds with her performance, but it felt like she didn’t even try. Going through the motions only gets you so far in colonial Victorian Africa. She manages some good scene-work with Zachary Jones’ Harry, the young explorer who seems to seduce everyone, including this reviewer. Jones has charisma for as long as the Sahara Desert is hot. His effortless grin allows him to do just about anything (to anyone) onstage and get away with it. He felt like a wasted talent during Act I, and few of the other actors seemed to rise to his level of performance. Unfortunately, the actors who did match his apex were rarely his scene partners, and, thus, we endured mismatched chemistry and wasted synergies of otherwise talented actors compensating for forced performances.

The scene-stealer was MiMi Scardulla as Ellen, the dutiful (lesbian) governess in Act I, and as Mrs. Saunders, the socialite woman with whom Clive has an affair. Scardulla is a rare gem in university theatre; a young woman with such confidence in her person, body, and performance, she can bat her eyes seductively one second and be crying for love the next. Her ability to switch hats (literally) as a servant with few options and a love for her mistress and as the attractive and successful socialite (also with few options) was truly astounding acting work. Scardulla, now a junior, has a bright future at The Boston Conservatory, provided that the faculty uses her to her full potential.

Act II had greater overall success in both storylines and acting. The Act I patriarchy and odd sexual antics were replaced by more mature and thoughtful performances in the sexually-free London society. Betty (now played by Scardulla) has left Clive (nowhere to be found – good riddance to the character, and thankfully freeing Cavazos for some better work); the daughter, Victoria (played by Dah Le Tam, an Asian doll, in Act I, and now by Cavazos in controlled hysterics) is married to overbearing Martin (played by Jones with some of the same charm, but more aloofness and sullenness than Act I’s Harry); and Edward (a mere nine-year-old boy played by Connor Berkompas in Act I, now played by Samantha Ma) is in an openly gay relationship with Garry (played by Kevin James Connor, another improvement from Act I’s casting of Connor as a black slave with a hard heart for everyone). Are you confused yet? Part of Churchill’s success in Cloud 9 is turning life and society on its head, as the action twists and turns its way to a pretty lackluster conclusion. Thankfully, the actors give us something to care about in Act II.

In her Director’s Note, Bandes emphasizes that the play is about identity—“who we are as individuals and as friends and family.” While this concept remains admirable, it stifled much of the action into the philosophical, making the production feel as stilted as the contrived gender roles and antiquated views of sexuality in Act I. By reframing the play in terms of “happiness,” Bandes and her cast could have found their way to Cloud 9 by using identity as a springboard to achieve the goal of happiness. As the characters struggle with their decisions on who to be and who to love, with whom to start a family and who to befriend, they remind us about the profound question of “How can we be happy in a world that makes many of our decisions for us?” The audience can examine their own world and their choices through the dynamics of Churchill’s increasingly confusing world and action.

I can’t say that I was pleased to see The Boston Conservatory attempt this play. Perhaps too much is lost in translation, in a play with clear political and social ties to London in the early 1980s. Perhaps the rushed rehearsal process (and I assume casting process) left the actors trying to fit square personalities into round character holes. Perhaps the journey to Cloud 9 never left the ground. I’m going to consider this a blip on an otherwise impressive track record of performances and shows. Next, The Boston Conservatory brings the beautiful dance musical On the Town to life (with some rumored favorite students filling out the cast). With such a strong musical theatre program, I welcome this production, though I wish that they spent a little more time in an acting studio, and less time at the barre.

As originally published on My Entertainment World