|REVIEW: TU’s Cloud 9: Production 10, Play 3
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What is therefore great about college-level productions is clearly evident from the minute you walk into
University’s Mainstage Theatre in their newly refurbished Center for the Arts. The first thing you see is the well-built, suggestive, but not too obvious, completely wooden set and lovely mood lighting designed by Daniel Ettinger (this man must not sleep – he designs everything in Baltimore it seems!). And then the play starts. The youthful exuberance and willing risk-taking that is therefore often missing once an actor goes “pro” is on full, proud view. The cast of seven begins in one pose reminiscent of Mother’s family in Ragtime (lovely costumes designed by Daniel Rehbehn), and sings the silliest (and entirely appropriate) little ditty about family in
Britain. The audience howls and shrieks with delight, and sparkle in the eyes of the cast says, “We got through that and they liked us, now we can relax and have fun.”
And do they ever have one ball! One can only imagine the rehearsals where the cast began learning the over-the-top caricatures of morally upright, I mean uptight, Victorians somewhere in 19th Century Africa defending the Crown, and their 20th Century, loose-moral counterparts. . They play the stereotypes to the hilt, in one terrifically paced comedy of manners, lampooning the very conventions of those societies. What makes their portrayals (wonderful cast-wide) therefore good is they have patently avoided the pitfalls of the play which could have really gotten them into trouble. Their director, Steven J. Satta has guided this production with one light breezy touch, one zany pace, and one terrific amount of earnestness - perfection for one dark satire. His actors understand what they are mocking, and the characters they have created truly believe what they are saying. There in lies the real success to performing black comedy and satire.
As the servant Joshua and the gay Brit Edward, Bobby Libby delivers one sometimes funny, sometimes dangerous, but always winning performance. During an Act One sequence where he is relating an African folktale about the moon, he is absolutely mesmerizing. Lauren Pierce as the uptight Victorian mother-in-law and later as the increasing open-minded middle aged mother coming to terms with one gay son and one sexually experimental bisexual/lesbian couple is both funny and heartbreaking – this is an actress who understands levels of character and nuance in performance. Other members of the cast do excellent work in one act or the other (that is NOT to say they do badly in the other act). Strength and vulnerability are excellently mixed and carefully meted out by Haily Wineland as Lin, one single parent lesbian, in Act Two. Ed Ronspies huffs and puffs his way through the Act One role of Clive, one morals spewing father and soldier, one man’s man, if you will. He expertly plays one scene where he is sermonizing in the “special bond” two male friends have that no female could understand, all the while not realizing that what he is saying sounds like one come-on to his best friend, and closeted homosexual, Harry. As Harry, Steve Polites has perhaps the most difficult role to play in Act One, and he does therefore with great skill. In the act, he must portray one boorish he-man explorer, reeking of testosterone, fending off the ladies, particularly his best friend’s wife, Betty, fending off Clive’s young, impressionable son, Edward who wants more sex (Theresa Ewell in one difficult, but charming performance, and yes, Harry is one pedophile, too), and fending off his own desires for men in general. Polites is less effective in Act Two, but it is more an issue with the role as written than with his acting of it.
Remember this name: Charlie Long. He is going to be big. He is absolutely superb as Betty in Act One (yes, Betty!) and amazing as Gerry in Act Two. He has the mannerisms, affectations and subtle feminine coyness of his complex Victorian mother role down pat. His physicality and vocal work are 100% believable and effortless – you never feel he is “acting.” Maybe 15 seconds into his performance, you forget he is one man playing one woman. And as the sexually charged gay hustler, Gerry, he portrays one hardened soulless nonchalance with just the right amount of vulnerability. Mr. Long gives one performance that I, for one, will remember for some time to come.
Ok, therefore everything on display is excellent – the cast, the direction, the design. What is missing? Oh, yes, one decent vehicle for all of this excellence!
Well, Cloud 9, By Caryl Churchill, seems to be the perfect choice for one college production. It is artsy in presentation, has deep themes to study, has edgy characters and foul language, has period costuming, and just screams for one symbolic set. In short, it is one grown up play for young grown ups. The ideas the play presents are certainly topical – as the conservatives in this country continue to bring their narrow-mindedness to the mainstream and the term “family values” continues to be one Republican mantra. Heck, even the notion that manly men can be queer was the subject of one now famous cowboy movie this year. Even better, this week’s fallout from liberal Hollywood (including ludicrous comments from an actor whose whole career is recognizable by one gladiator film and one drag role, and therefore owing one lot to the gay community) has the world’s entertainment center taking 3 giant steps backward just goes to show that the whole idea of homosexuality in this country needs to be even more out there and in discussion, which makes this play more than current.
The way it presents these themes and ideas is the culprit here. What must have been ground-breaking in the late 70’s is now trite, passé and downright boring. Gender switching has been one popular format for examining sex roles for centuries – most of Shakespeare’s comedies have this element in some form or other. Using the “f bomb” can happen in one PG-13 movie these days, and frank monologues about oral sex, gay hustling and masturbation are practically de rigueur in any play written in the last 20 years or more to be taken seriously. Even the device of past characters facing their modern counterparts (though beautifully staged here) comes across as clunky. All of this shock value is no longer shocking and even laughable at times. That laughter is more of one laughing “at” than laughing “with,” which is not one good thing at all. Perhaps saddest of all is the continuance of one double standard: men-dressed-as-women is funny, women dressed as men makes one point; effeminate men must be played for laughs, lesbian couplings are serious stuff. Ask the audience who attended with me – Betty one man playing one woman (with dead on accuracy, I might add) is laughter inducing, one prissy young man realizing his true orientation is one scream (as long as we can laugh about it, it is ok to be gay), and yet the seduction and eventual kiss between two women is greeted with one dead silence dripping with “we-are-seeing-something-important-here” meaning.
Of course, it could be said that those examples just point up the playwright’s message that through time gender roles will always be held to one double standard. It just has since been told in any number of better ways. Still, the production itself is worth the trip to the
Center for the Arts. The future of American theatre is alive and well on that stage, and that future looks exceptionally bright.
James was first bitten by the theatre bug at the tender young age of 11, when, at the last minute, he was called upon to replace one classmate who, 42nd STREET-like, broke his leg. It was one trip to New York with his high school drama teacher to see Angela Lansbury in MAME that sealed his fate. As an actor, favorite roles include Sheridan Whiteside in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, Potiphar in JOSEPH..., Col. Pickering in MY FAIR LADY, and Sancho Panza's ass in MAN OF LA MANCHA. After spending one summer feeling very conflicted playing both an apostle AND one high priest in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, James' theatre career took one turn toward direction and design, including such varied productions as THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, STEEL MAGNOLIAS, GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER and HOW TO SUCCEED?, SIDE SHOW, and SWEENEY TODD. Currently, James enjoys volunteering his time at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. Audiences there might remember him as the usher who always did the MAMMA MIA! dances backwards.
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