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Gerald Carpenter: UCSB Theater Department on ‘Cloud Nine’

The 'dark comedy' by British playwright Caryl Churchill opens Friday

The opening dramatic offering by the UCSB Department of Theater and Dance will be British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine.

Playwright Caryl Churchill at about the time she wrote Cloud Nine.
Playwright Caryl Churchill at about the time she wrote Cloud Nine.

Cloud Nine is directed by UCSB faculty member Anne Torsiglieri and stars UCSB drama students Brian Allan Bock, Brittany Carriger, Andrew Fromer, Allie Granat, Dylan Hale, Hasmik Anna Saakian and Garret Ward. The sets were designed by Anne McMeeking, the costumes by Ann Bruice and the lighting by Vickie Scott. James Connolly wrote the incidental music, and UCSB graduate student Brian Granger set the lyrics of a song by Churchill to music of his own composition.

UCSB bills Cloud Nine as a “dark comedy,” though the overly sensitive might read a racist slur into this characterization of a play about racism, colonialism and gender inequality — à la Evelyn Waugh’s blatantly patronizing Black Mischief. But the darkness of the humor doesn’t stem from the skin pigmentation of any of the characters, and would be more accurately termed “absurdist” — though that, on the other hand, might give aid and comfort to the real enemy: white male supremacists.

Cloud Nine, at any rate, is in two acts. The first is set in a British colony in Africa in the late 19th century, the second in London in 1979. The two acts are thus separated by about 100 years, yet some of the characters appear in both and have aged only 25 years.

The top five dramatis personae of Act One are officially identified as: “Clive, a colonial administrator; Betty, his wife, played by a man; Joshua, his black servant, played by a white; Edward, his son, played by a woman; and Victoria, his daughter, a dummy.” The rest of the characters in Act One are: “Maud, (Clive’s) mother-in-law; Ellen, Edward’s governess; Harry Bagley, an explorer; and Mrs. Saunders, a widow, played by the same actress who plays Ellen.”

In Act Two, we find: “Betty, now played by a woman (normally the same actress who plays Edward); Edward, her son, now played by a man (normally the same actor who plays Betty); Victoria, her daughter (normally played by the same actress who plays Maud); Martin, Victoria’s husband (normally played by the same actor who plays Harry); Lin, a lesbian single mother (normally played by the same actress who plays Ellen/Mrs. Saunders); Cathy, Lin’s daughter age 5, played by a man (normally the same actor who plays Clive); and Gerry, Edward’s lover (normally played by the same actor who plays Joshua).”

Clearly, we are not in Kansas — or Brixton — any more. This is Churchill’s 22nd play. It was first performed more than 30 years ago, and she is still going strong. She is “known for her use of non-naturalistic techniques and feminist themes, the abuses of power, and sexual politics” — all of which are obvious from the short precis I provided above. She is also a master of stagecraft — how else would she keep getting plays produced after 50 years? — and is adept at making subtle social and philosophical points without losing her audience. If her casting seems arbitrary, it’s also valid and effective.

Cloud Nine will run for 14 performances, at 8 p.m. Nov. 4-5 and Nov. 9-12, and at 2 p.m. Nov. 5-6 and Nov. 12 in the Performing Arts Theater (no late seating). Tickets are $13 to $17 and are available at the box office. Click here or call 805.893.7221.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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