Friday, February 23, 2007

On the North Coast

Cloud 9 at HSU

Opening night of the HSU production of Cloud 9 answered some of the questions posed and implied in my previous post. Would this production be funny? Would it solve the second act problem? The answer in both cases is yes.

The Thursday night audience was about half the capacity of Gist, but the laughter was there. Even for those who might have been somewhat bewildered or dismayed by the lifestyles portrayed and point of view expressed, there was enough showmanship and built-in comedy of (in particular) males playing females that the author's intended style--comic--could take hold anyway. And there were enough people in the audience whose laughter was raucous and infectious to bouy that mood. That permission to laugh is important, because it provides access to the deeper sources of humor, and without that the play loses half its life and much of its general humanity.

In my previous experience of the play and in reviews of other productions I've read, I've found that the second act has been difficult to carry off successfully. The HSU production did it partly with a crisp pace and directness. But I suspect it succeeded also because the first act was not as funny as it could be.

The second act problem may be inherent in the difference between the two acts. The Victorians in Africa of the first act are so hypocritical and unconscious that they can easily be played as hysterically funny caricactures. But in the second act, set in modern London, the characters are "liberated," conscious--and very self-conscious-- of sex and gender roles and freedom, and the comedy is more ironic (though there is a scene or two of farce.) The problem is that the comic potential of the first act is so extreme that the second act will pale by comparison.

In this production, though, the temptation to make the first act as hysterically hilarious as it could be is avoided, and so there isn't the great letdown with the lower octane comedy of the second act. The play works better as a whole. If this was the director's intention, it works great. If it wasn't, it works great anyway.

That's also important because there are moments of drama and shocking intensity in both acts, that can have a revelatory effect in the midst of comedy, but not in the midst of tedium.

I also wrote about accents in that last post, and I'm pleased to report that on the whole they work well here. There is a contemporary middle class lilt to them in Act II--particularly Tisha Sloane's--and an appropriate contrast to the more formal dictions of the Imperial Victorians in Act I.

The characters in both acts are extreme, yet very human. While I mentioned Churchill's irony, seeing the second act reminds me how that irony is grounded in her humanity. The most touching moment for me was the conversation between the gay young man (whose speech about his promiscuous lifestyle may remind us that this play was written before AIDS) and the mother of the man he had been living with. Though fraught with misunderstandings and revelations, it ends up in a simple friendship beyond age, gender or sex. (It also seems very English.)

Opening night jitters aside, the cast was uniformly entertaining. Erik Rhea was a crowd favorite as the colonial wife, Betty, and his switch to Edward, the gay son who decides he's a Lesbian, was also very well and sympathetically performed. Tisha Sloane had a lot of quick changes of clothes and character in the first act, and a difficult role in the second--she was excellent throughout, with real depth to her characterization of Victoria in Act II.

By giving us real characters quickly, Sarah Daum, Katherine Bickford, Alex Gradine, Missy Hopper and Calder Johnson not only gave audiences what they needed to enter the play, they provided the great after-effect of musing on the connections between the characters they played in Act I with those they played in Act II. They are also to be saluted for their courage in taking on these parts and bringing the energy and commitment to them that brought them alive. Gradine had one monster speech, unlike anything else in the play, and he delivered it effectively. Perhaps even more impressively, The older Betty in Act II also had long speeches which verge on dithering at first, but her sincerity becomes something of the moral center of the play. So Katherine Bickford had to walk a fine line to make her credible, which she admirably did.

The set design, the music (especially the singing), lighting and the other elements of the production all worked to create these twin imagined worlds. Once you get used to his characteristic style of placing actors at a distance from each other to essentially declaim their lines, all the better to make stage pictures and navigate symbolic spaces, John Heckel's direction works well for this play. I thought he'd lost a lot of the bitter comedy in Brecht's Mother Courage last year with this style, but here it works, at least in conjunction with the non-Brechtian acting this cast accomplishes. I'm not sure the added cross-casting of Martin in Act II worked to fully illuminate that character and his role in the melange, but that amounts to a quibble.

Win, lose or draw, HSU productions bring plays and styles of theatre that aren't otherwise available on the North Coast. Theatre here would really be unbalanced and incomplete without it.

Cloud 9 continues at HSU on Saturday (Feb. 24) and next weekend, Thursday through Saturday (March 1-3) at 7:30 in Gist Hall Theatre.

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