As the reigning queen of psychological stage haze, Caryl Churchill doesn't apologize for the lack of explanation or analytical epilogue in her work. It's a cerebral challenge to detangle and connect the dots of her works, a physical challenge to stage them, and an even bigger challenge to sit through one without internally combusting from frustration. Or, in the case of Catalyst Theater Company's zany interpretation of her outdated parody, Cloud 9, to sit back and take it all it in without suppressing a laugh or two.
That director Halo Wines is able to make sense of Churchill's enigmatic wit and, if you're open to it, wisdom is a testament to the strength of Catalyst's production, a fairly painless exercise in theater at its most natural form. Prime acting from a cast of seven suggests a heady plethora of possibilities to be divined from Churchill's intentionally abstract piece.
Cracked up: Cloud 9's McCauley and Gillett
(Photo by Christopher Janson)
Churchill sets the first act in Colonial Africa, "circa 1880. " Here she reveals the story of a British family headed by a hypocritical patriarch whose duties to the Empire include colonizing indigenous areas. Wife Betty is played by a male, son Edward by a female. African servant Joshua is white, and daughter Victoria is literally a rag doll stuffed with cotton and dragged about the house. Always an experimenting structuralist, Churchill fast forwards the second act, shifting time and place to 1980 London, aging her characters roughly twenty-five years and landing them in the middle of the sexual revolution. By intertwining the stuffy family of characters from the first act with the liberated lot of the second, Churchill examines how generations fuel a legacy of ideas and cultural customs that are passed on to influence the lives of their children.
The miracle that Cloud 9 works at all is largely attributed to how well it is staged. Wines' vision is akin to a fluffy feather duster clearing away confusing entanglements from Churchill's script. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Wines expertly cleans the clutter out of potentially messy situations, and the result is a taut production that allows room for the audience's imagination to fill in the blanks. Her cast subtly hints at who their characters are with just enough room left open for interpretation.
The evening features superb performances from Tricia McCauley, Ellen Young and a saucy turn from Elizabeth Richards. But the men in this bizarre romp sink their teeth into something a bit more substantial, especially Dan Via, one of the area's most underrated actors, who does a splendid job with his British patriot and later as the brother who grows up to be a gay gardener.
Bill Gillett steals every scene he is in, whether convincing the audience that he is an imposing tribesman plucked from the wilds of Africa or a cunning young girl fixated on a Popsicle. Gillett is a skillful sorcerer on stage, conjuring up both the opposite sex and the opposite race with effortless aplomb. He is a pleasure to watch and listen to in character, and relays the magic of Churchill's story from the most improbable angles.
Touted as a work focused on sexual politics, Cloud 9 is just as much about the divisions of race, class, gender and age as it is about sex, incest, and child-parent bonds. Though her observations are no longer perched on the cutting edge, and her intent remains as ambiguous as ever, Churchill seems to suggest that sexual preferences are not only arbitrary, but that they also inadvertently teach the lessons of how one guides inferiority and consequently, how one learns to be subservient.
Inspired by successful past productions of other "lost " plays, Arena Stage has mounted a dreadful piece of stage pageantry with Intimations for Saxophone, a script unearthed and adapted over the last fourteen years by Arena's former dramaturg Michael Kinghorn. Sophie Treadwell, the author of 1928's Machinal, began her slip of a play at the height of the Great Depression, but it never saw the light of day, much less a professionally staged production, until now.
It's difficult to differentiate how much of Treadwell's original manuscript has been tinkered with in Kinghorn's adaptation, a purely pedestrian story of a wealthy, privileged woman trapped in a boring marriage. Just like Saxophone's plot, Lily Laird is stuck on auto-pilot, coasting through her lackluster life trying to discover herself. Smothered by her domestic existence, she seeks an adventurous odyssey to escape her suffocating surroundings. Saxophone drones on with its monotonous themes and barely-written story, culminating in a pointless affair filled with one-dimensional characters who never establish a clear purpose.
Directed with the bold physical style of SITI Company co-founder Anne Bogart, Saxophone's cast is often caught up in frenetic, even rhapsodic movement that does little to illuminate the scattered remains of Treadwell's storyline. As a result of her unconventional efforts, several actors are forced to exit while still delivering lines of dialogue, and frequently appear as living cartoons -- cardboard cutouts of people offering mere glimpses of who their characters were intended to be.
Bogart also has trouble staging scenes in the round, and although Darron L. West has designed an exceptionally detailed soundscape and the stage is bathed in Christopher Akerlind's lovely lighting, the only successful attempt at inferring the vogue sensibilities of the jazz age is apparent through bright, entertaining choreography from actor Barney O'Hanlon. O'Hanlon portrays Gilly, the husband still tied to his mother's apron strings, to shallow effect. Karron Graves makes the most out of her lead role, while local talent Marcus Kyd shines in multiple smaller parts.
While Graves suffers endlessly through Lily's quest to get at what life is all about, the only thing this Saxophone intimates is the reality that some lost stories should remain just that -- always and forever lost.