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Cloud 9 at the Gift Theatre | Theater review

A striking ensemble grounds Caryl Churchill’s stimulating, topsy-turvy work.
Jay Worthington and Kenny Mihlfried in Cloud 9 at the Gift Theatre
Photograph: courtesy of the Gift Theatre Jay Worthington and Kenny Mihlfried in Cloud 9 at the Gift Theatre
By Oliver Sava |

For a British family living in colonial Africa, the beating drums outside their door are a reminder of the native people they’ve dominated and enslaved. In 1979 London, the drums have been replaced with children playing, the sound of traditional social values forcing the female natives into submission. Caryl Churchill explores the relationship between colonial and sexual oppression in her complex, provocative comedy, and Payne-Hahner and Thornton’s production has as much emotional depth as academic sophistication.

Churchill turns established social roles on their heads through atypical casting. A white actor (Jay Worthington) is a black servant eager to abandon his heritage, a woman (Jessie Fisher) plays an effeminate young boy, and a sexually confused housewife is portrayed by a man (Kenny Mihlfried). These unorthodox choices reflect the repressed desires of the characters, and in the gap between acts—which Churchill’s population experiences as 25 years despite the larger historical shift—the characters embrace their true natures as their environment changes. When housewife Betty divorces her husband, she embraces her femininity, and a woman (Alexandra Main) takes over the role.

The ensemble defines the difficult characters with clarity and humor. Fisher’s striking transition from timid child Edward to aggressive lesbian mother Lin showcases the actor’s versatility. Worthington’s excellent portrait of African Joshua and the intensity of his transformation in Act II exemplify the entire ensemble’s dedication to Churchill’s challenging material.

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