Upsetting conventions in subtle, moving ways

April 23, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

The opening image in Impossible Industrial Action's production of Caryl Churchill's "Cloud 9" is the shadow of a man in safari clothes, silhouetted behind, and completely overpowering, a map of Africa.

It's an excellent scenic metaphor for British colonization, which is the ostensible subject of the first act of this play, being presented at the Theatre Project. However, Churchill is known ,, for standing subjects on their ears -- and so, for that matter, is IIA. "Cloud 9" is the second Churchill play directed for this company by Paul Wright, and judging from both productions, the sensibilities of this British feminist playwright and this socially concerned local troupe are well-matched.

But back to that initial image. When we finally see the safari-dressed Britisher, he turns out to be a white character played by a black actor. This isn't merely colorblind casting, however. It's Churchill's deliberately topsy-turvy way of upsetting preconceptions, which is the true subject of this play.

In act one, which takes place in the Victorian era in colonial Africa, the character of Betty, a proper British housewife, is played by a man in drag; her young son, Edward, is played by a grown woman; and the family's native servant, Joshua, is played by a white man.

Churchill is not only challenging matters of race, but also gender, and, as the characters' sexual orientations are revealed, stereotypes about sexuality as well.

The second, more traditional act, takes place 100 years later, in a park in modern-day London. Most of the characters from the first act reappear -- though they have aged only 25 years and are played by different actors.

For example, little Edward, portrayed by actress Robin J. Hogle in act one, has grown up to be a bisexual man, portrayed by Thomas E. Cole. And Robb Bauer, who plays Betty in the first half, is transformed into Cole's leather-jacketed homosexual lover.

The most moving portrayal is that of Janel Bosies as Betty, who is now a divorced grandmother. Like Joshua in act one, Betty is a victim of repression, struggling to liberate herself. Bosies makes her awakening so bright and illuminating you can almost see light bulbs popping on over her head.

IIA has always been strong on visuals, and particularly in the first act, these reinforce Churchill's themes. Costume designer David Barber dresses Bauer's proper housewife in starched petticoats that look as ridiculous and uncomfortable as the butler's tail coat worn over native dress by Cole's Joshua (his apparel also suggests the divided loyalties of this seemingly devoted "houseboy").

Similarly, the act one set, designed by the versatile Bauer, consists of painted cloth backdrops that are pulled on and off like curtains. The effect is that of a giant toy theater in which the characters are puppets.

In "Cloud 9," oppression is oppression, whether of race, gender or social class. Churchill would probably have a field day with this country's current issue of gays in the military -- though that's probably too easy a target for this inventive playwright. The strength of this script, and IIA's production of it, is that, without stooping to such overt references, it leaves you pondering them long after the final curtain.

"Cloud 9"

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Through May 2.

Tickets: $14.

Call: (410) 752-8558.

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