A white male actor plays a black African in the first act of “Cloud 9.” In the second act, the same bearded man plays a young girl, now costumed in a wig and frilly pink dress.
Another male actor in “Cloud 9” plays first a woman and then a gay male. A female plays a boy and later a bisexual woman.
Keeping up with who’s playing whom can be a challenge while watching “Cloud 9,” the gender-bending play that opened Wednesday at Lower Columbia College’s Center Stage theater. The unsettled feeling is probably what playwright Caryl Churchill intended. The overall message is that sexual roles and gender identification are malleable indeed.
“Cloud 9” is oddly funny much of the time and occasionally bombastic. LCC director Don Correll’s cast is well prepared for the diverse characterizations.
A warning: not everyone will want to see this show because of its adult language and numerous sexual situations, both straight and gay. “Cloud 9” would probably get an R rating if it were a movie.
To add to the unreality of gender switching, the play is built around a time warp. The first scene is set in British colonial Africa in 1880. Most of the same characters (played by other actors) return in the second act, which is set a century later -- but the characters have aged only 25 years.
In the first act, the audience gets to know a British family living in a remote part of Africa. As Clive, the colonial administrator, Nathan Clark is suitably proper and outwardly dignified.
Robert Loren dresses in drag to play Clive’s wife, Betty, who announces, “I am a man’s creation as you see, and what men want is what I want to be.”
Betty is quite smitten with the explorer Harry, played by Timothy Laughlin. However, Harry is interested in both geographical and sexual exploration, taking up with the family’s black servant, played by Dante Huffine, a white actor. The message here is that the subservient African prefers his white masters to his kin.
Harry is also sexually involved with Clive’s 9-year-old son Edward, played by the woman Shae Coleman . The fact this would be considered criminal behavior even back then is not examined in the context of the play.
Meanwhile, Clive has a rather graphic sexual encounter with the widow Mrs. Saunders (Wendy Howard-Benham), who has come to seek safety during a native uprising. And oh yes, the governess (Susan Foytack) fancies Betty.
In the second act, most of the characters continue to act out their sexuality in a later, less-repressed London. The relationships now include a gay male couple (Clark and Loren) and a lesbian couple (Coleman and Dian Krane). Coleman plays Victoria, Clive and Betty’s daughter who was represented by a dummy in the first half.
One scene is described as an orgy, though it’s more of an odd seance. The action slows down in the second act, with characters who tell more than they show about their choices of behavior.
Though the characters enjoy flamboyant sexual freedom in their later years, and the women have been liberated from the control of men, they aren’t much happier than when they were younger and repressed in the colonial period.
With all the abrupt sexual flipping, it would be tempting for the actors to lapse into campiness, but they play the roles straight. Howard-Benham, who was active in theater in the San Jose area for 30 years before recently moving here, is particularly good as an upper-crust Brit.
All the character confusion and changing of roles drives home the suggestion that there’s a weak line between gay and straight and between outwardly acceptable demeanor and spur-of-the-moment trysts.
“Cloud 9’s” character and gender upheaval result in the play’s overriding weakness. The extreme behavior in this play, which is now 35 years old, keeps the characters superficial. It’s hard to identify strongly or empathize with the characters at a time when gays and lesbians are making headway in gaining respect as people in lasting relationships.