TAMPA — Seven actors and a doll play 17 roles in Cloud Nine, Jobsite Theater's last production of the season. The farce by British playwright Caryl Churchill was a local hit in 2003, one that helped establish Jobsite as the resident theater at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, in part due to the crazy complexities it embraces and the social conventions it lampoons.
Between the first act, set in 1879 on a British plantation in colonial Africa, and the second, in England in 1979, all actors have switched roles or stepped into new ones. Men play women (or girls); women play men (or boys); a white man plays a black slave; and most of the characters also have at least one flirtation or affair or relationship going on. It's a free-for-all.
Let's get this out of the way. I both enjoyed and suffered through different aspects of this show. To be fair, humor is one of the most subjective of art forms and farce was never my favorite. At the same time, Cloud Nine is no door-slamming bedroom escapade, it's not run-on silliness. There's a lot to it. And yes, some of that is funny.
Director Gavin Hawk has rolled out an insanely complicated show with authority and poise. The pace is brisk but not frantic. Costumes by Katrina Stevenson (who also plays three roles) contribute. Everyone seems to have gone all in, and that's probably the best advice for potential audiences as well. If you go, don't spend that time second guessing things or picking it to death. You'll need to be all in, and that requires enough energy in a show that runs three hours.
The layout alone looks like three-dimensional chess, and Churchill is not just showing off with that design. Cloud Nine is very much a commentary on power, and gender and sexuality as vehicles by which society channels that power.
The first act lays out the hierarchy explicitly. Clive, the plantation owner (played respectably by Giles Davies), controls his family and everyone else. He wants to maintain order, or the illusion of order, against the brewing insurrection of natives not far away. His wife, Betty, knows anything approaching fulfillment is unattainable but would at least like to minimize her disappointments. She's having an affair with Clive's friend, Harry (Hugh Timoney), and fending off the advances of their governess Ellen (Stevenson).
Harry is also a pedophile who carries on with their pre-adolescent son Edward (Tatiana Baccari), an activity that mercifully takes place offstage. Clive learns of his wife's relationship with Harry through Joshua the slave (Spencer Paul Meyers), his spy and the embodiment of internalized racism. "My skin is black, but oh my soul is white," Joshua says. The role is written for a white actor.
Clive shames Betty (played with an amusing sadness by David Jenkins) over the affair, although it's only a matter of time before we learn of his own indiscretions. In one memorable scene, he grovels on his knees before a family friend, Mrs. Saunders (Stevenson), his head underneath her skirts as she flogs him with a riding crop.
Betty's mother Maud (Amy Gray) enforces bygone social codes, and Ellen looks to escape indentured servitude. A rag doll plays Victoria, Betty's infant daughter, on whom other characters project their whims at caretaking.
The second act, 100 years later, uses some of the same characters. If that passage of time isn't confusing enough, the characters themselves have only aged 25 years. Meyers, who had played Joshua, now opens the act with a monologue about his fondness for gay pickups. Davies now plays Cathy, the manic daughter of Lin, a working-class Irish lesbian (Stevenson again in a versatility trifecta). To escape gender stereotyping, Lin has given Cathy a rifle that shoots caps, which she uses. Davies, who had acquitted himself well enough as Clive, lays on the role of Cathy with an intentional infliction of emotional distress. ("I'm pretty, I'm pretty," she cries, running around the stage in a pink play dress and hotter pink sneakers, a bit the audience found hilarious.)
Got all of that? There's much more. Timony switches from Harry to Martin, an aging hippie who lives through the 1960s and extracted only the sexual liberation part (though he wishes women weren't so explicit in stating their own needs; it's a turn-off).
One highlight would be Baccari's portrayal of Betty in 1979. Tasteful, stylish and polite, she is learning to assert her likes and dislikes, embracing life with a newfound curiosity and even joy. It's a fine performance. Some references and tropes, from orgies to phrases like "women's liberation" and the Irish Republican Army, date the show a bit since its debut in 1979, but not in any substantial way. The substance of it — so much substance, a quadruple-decker sandwich, almost enough to choke on — endures, as do many of the laughs.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.