English dramatist Caryl Churchill’s hilarious 1979 radical feminist farce "Cloud Nine" was her breakthrough play in the United States. Churchill blithely tells one family’s story of incest, pedophilia, marital philandering, orgy and general sexual mayhem, drawing numerous links between nuclear family dysfunction and patriarchal imperialist politics.
Filled with dirty puns, "Cloud Nine" is a comedic story about the sick world we live in, and an altogether enjoyable evening in the theater. On Wednesday, Berkeley Repertory Theater opened a funny and raunchy production of the play, doing justice to Churchill’s wacky vision. This is Monty Python on Quaaludes.
"Cloud Nine" is also a lot about child rearing, and how adults pass violence and sadism on to the next generation. The play repeatedly examines a direct link between the abuse of women and children in the nuclear family, and the abuse of the third world by the first world.
"Cloud Nine" divides into two halves. The first half is set in an expatriate British family compound in 1880 in colonial Africa. Here the family patriarch (a stiff upper-lipped Timothy Crowe) beats the locals while copulating with any woman who isn’t his wife.
Former Shakespeare Santa Cruz artistic director Danny Scheie portrays frustrated wife Betty hilariously, turning much of "Cloud Nine’s" first act into an amusing drag show.
But soon Betty turns her lust in the direction of explorer friend Harry (Hemingway look-alike Fred Sullivan, Jr.). Harry, for his part, directs his lust towards Betty’s young son. In this upstanding English family, there is plenty of sexual identity confusion to go around.
The play’s second half follows the same people into a public garden in London in 1980 – a hundred years later historically, but through the magic of theater, only 25 years later in the lives of the family members.
Here in modern times the marriages can dissolve, as everyone experiments sexually. Counterculture liberation makes for strange bedfellows, and weird triangles emerge.
Further stirring the identity confusion soup, actors in the play’s second half swap characters and sometimes switch genders. There are many amusing performances.
Scheie is wonderful as the dowdy, horny colonial wife. Her advice early on, "You don’t feel what you think you do," neatly sums up the emotional hall of mirrors this family lives in.
Angela Brazil is terrific in act one as Betty’s lively son Edward, obsessed with his criminal crush on the much older explorer.
Timothy Crowe, the randy patriarch of act one, morphs a hundred years later in London into an overgrown bratty girl with pigtails tended by her mother in the park. Crowe is a huge guy, and this is quite a funny change.
Matthew Boston is the passive-aggressive African houseboy of act one, transforming in act two into a complex grown-up version of gay son Edward, now working as a park gardener.
Director Tony Taccone makes it all work. Astutely, he allows the characters to have stretches of honest emotional struggle, particularly in act two, giving everyone a chance to breathe and connect.
A touching love affair between two modern London women (Stacy Ross and Andrea Brazil) provides a foundation for much of the production’s feeling of rootedness.
Since these characters are often trapped in delusional worlds, they have the potential to be merely cartoons in which sex or violence is the only form of connecting to others.
The top half of a huge portrait frame emerges out of the ground, like an archeological artifact, at the back of scenic designer Loy Arcenas’ mostly bare stage – a reminder that with this family we’re getting only half the picture.
"Cloud Nine" asks the question "What is normal?" After watching this production, which turns everything upside down, you realize the answer is not simple.
What masquerades as love in families, and as justice in politics, often is not. And often it is love that human beings fear the most.
Daily Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for "American Theatre," "Backstage West," "Callboard," and many other publications. Email him at email@example.com.