Christian Pedersen and Laura C. Harris in Cloud 9, directed by Michael Kahn, at Studio Theatre.
Christian Pedersen and Laura C. Harris in Cloud 9, directed by Michael Kahn, at Studio Theatre.
(© Amy Horan)

Theatergoers who love serious works that still maintain a playful voice will delight in the lighthearted, saucy production of British playwright Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 at Studio Theatre. Thirty-five years after its premiere, Cloud 9 still entertains as it forces audiences to consider questions of authority, gender, society, and love.

The first act of Cloud 9 takes place during the Victorian era in an unnamed British colony in Africa. The members of a family are introduced by the father, Clive. The family includes Clive's wife, Betty; mother-in-law, Maude; son, Edward and daughter Victoria; a servant named Joshua; Edward's governess, Ellen; and Clive's best friend, the explorer Harry. Clive announces to the audience that his family represents the Empire, order, and honesty.

Yet, it is immediately apparent that this is a topsy-turvy universe. Betty is played by a man. Edward is played by a woman. Betty is in love with Harry, Harry is incapable of love, Clive lusts after Mrs. Saunders, a pistol-packing widow with a voracious sexual appetite, and Victoria is portrayed by a life-sized doll.

John Scherer is solid as Clive, a man who at first sounds like a good father and husband, but who soon shows himself to be a hypocrite. Wyatt Fenner is very funny as Betty, flirting madly with Harry. Philippe Bowgen is excellent as Joshua, particularly good when he tells a wildly fabricated African creation story to young Edward. Laura C. Harris is well-cast as the pampered Edward, who adores Harry and loves to play with dolls.

Holly Twyford is brilliant in her dual roles of aggressive, sex-driven Mrs. Saunders and meek, sex-driven Ellen. She plays both roles in the same costume, sometimes moments apart from one another.

Maude is played with icy reserve by Joy Jones, who turns this character into the mother-in-law from hell, ready to swat her grandchildren for a minor offense. Harry, who has a predilection for boys as well as for his best friend's wife, is played by Christian Pederson as a rugged British outdoorsman always yearning to go "back to the river."

Act 2 shifts the action to 1979 in London, but for the characters, only 25 years have passed. Some of them (Ellen, Joshua) have disappeared, but the actors who played them take on new roles. John Scherer now plays the grown-up Edward, who loves living with Gerry (Fenner), a gay man devoted to anonymous sex. Eventually, Edward goes to live with his sister, Victoria (Harris), now unhappily married to a misogynist, Martin (Pedersen), and trying to escape her loveless marriage.

Twyford takes on the character of Betty, but this Betty has left her husband, gotten a job, and is thrilled with the money she makes. Jones skillfully plays the spirited Lin, a single mother of the obstreperous young Cathy (Bowgen).

Michael Kahn's deft direction has the actors running from the back of the theater through the audience to the stage, so Cloud 9 has the feel of a classic French bedroom farce. Kahn also emphasizes the melodramatic underpinning of the play, making sure it does not come across as a realistic drama.

Luciana Stecconi's set creates a huge proscenium arch in the Studio's Metheny Theatre, underlining the ultra-theatrical sense of the play. Frank Labovitz's costumes express the 19th century Victorian African experience: khaki suits for the men, dresses with bustles for the women. The Act 2 costumes consist of late 1970s British clothes.

While Act 1 of Cloud 9 primarily points out the lies humans tell to allow themselves pleasure, and Act 2 takes for granted the fact that pleasure is useful and a necessary part of life. In the second act, new ideas are invented to provide individuals with more possibilities to survive outside of conventional social relationships. It is heartening to see that a play written almost 40 years ago has so many relevant things to say about human nature's struggle and our openness to form new institutions, cultural norms, and gender identities.