By Andrew Andrews
Climbing the steps to the Access Theater is a lot like hiking to the top of a mountain: you don’t know what to expect at the summit, but you can bet it’s going to be an adventure. Our last visit took us to a tumultuous third world country for Primitive Grace’s Fringe of Humanity; on this trip, our destinations were a British colony in Africa for the first act, and a neighborhood in London for the second.
But far more than a voyage across continents, The Seeing Place’s Cloud 9 is a journey through time and changing values. In Africa, we’re back in the 1880s (as during our recent attendance at The Enchantment); in London we make up a hundred years to when gender roles are not so well-defined and sexual escapades are a little less implicit—well, depending on to whom you’re speaking, anyway. But this forty-year-old creation by Caryl Churchill more than just exposes and explores gender, sex and the accompanying social politics: it very intentionally challenges those and other stereotypes by forcing actors across boundaries that traditional theater wouldn’t think—or perhaps dare—to bridge: a white man (Bill McAndrews) performing as an African “savage,” a grown man (Brandon Walker) assuming the persona of a preschool girl, a grown woman (Erin Cronican)—with breasts hardly contained by the tightness of her vest!—playing the part of a prepubescent boy. All the while, you understand that this was not just a casting decision on the part of The Seeing Place, because it’s written into the script, and the stage direction is always announced as though you’re attending a reading of the material instead of the play itself.
This, too, is not a decision that the company has made; rather, it was always Churchill’s intent that the piece be performed in the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt style. Which means that this is not the sort of play where you can lose yourself in the story or place yourself in the mind of its characters—instead, you are constantly reminded that you are an outsider, witnessing events to which you are not a party. Now, you might try to draw parallels here to our beloved Neo-Futurists and their weekly show The Infinite Wrench (formerly Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind), or even their limited-engagement productions such as The Great American Drama or, more recently, A Simple Art. But stop right there! Whereas the Neos are always performing as themselves, in the present moment, this show definitely represents another time and place and the actors are unquestionably assuming the roles of their characters. So unquestionably, in fact, that you might just wonder why these lines appear so patently crossed instead of merely blurred. And if it makes you feel a little guilty for noticing, then count this experiment a success.
With all of that in mind, it would be an insult to say that the cast (Jane Kahler, Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia, Robin Friend Stift and Ari Veach) convincingly portrayed their characters, or that we truly felt transported in time and place to the settings of the story. The only member of the ensemble that we believed in was the narrator, Mariel Reyes! So if you’re up for the challenge of seeing live theater in a decidedly different light, check out Cloud 9 before it closes on July 16th. And, after it’s chewed you up and spit you out, come on back over here to tell us how it made you feel! Whether you liked it, loved it, or it isn’t your style, your reviews help others decide whether they should attend, and your ratings help us help you find upcoming events and activities you’ll love!2
Andrew Andrews attended Cloud 9 at Access Theater in Manhattan on Monday, July 3, 2017 @ 8:00pm to write this review.
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