Caryl Churchill’s 1979 “Cloud 9,” a wildly inventive look at sexual repression, politics and identity, plays like it was written yesterday. Plucky 2-year-old Tiny Engine Theatre takes on Churchill’s gender-bending, time-traveling comedy with gusto, unabashed by its adult situations and frank language.
Act one is set around 1880 in Africa, where Clive, his wife Betty, son Edward, daughter Victoria and mother-in-law Maud reside with governess Ellen and native servant Joshua. Explorer Harry, a family friend, comes to visit, as does a neighbor, Mrs. Saunders. All the characters are rebelling against Victorian strictures over whom and how to love.
Act two takes place a hundred years later in a London park. Betty, Edward and Victoria, played by different actors, have aged only 25 years, allowing them to experience new-found sexual freedoms. Although this should lead to “cloud 9” happiness, past conventions hobble them.
This merry-go-round of characters in love with one (or more) of the others reveals desperate, sometimes shocking passions. A complicating layer is introduced with some roles being played by opposite genders and the children being played by adults (and one doll).
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John Paul Middlesworth is perfect as privileged Clive, switching nicely in the second act to Martin, Victoria’s clueless husband. Nick Popio admirably balances farce and reality as Betty and is moving as love-starved Edward in act two. Laurel Ullman’s double role as love-struck governess Ellen and the devil-may-care Mrs. Saunders (both in the first act) precedes her sympathetic turn as the older, lonely Betty.
Josh Henderson makes Harry an amusing opportunist, while his portrayal of Gerry, Edward’s lover, in the second act is cold and calculating. Christopher Bynum’s brooding Joshua becomes a riveting portrait, contrasted by his ludicrously overgrown 5-year-old Cathy in act two. As young Edward, Denver Skye Vaughn is stereotypically boisterous, but his Lin, who’s fallen for Victoria (act two), is a likable, rounded character. Noelle Barnard Azarelo gives Maud appropriate snootiness and her Victoria (act two) an understandable indecision about her future.
Director Paul Sapp’s precise staging impresses with its energy and bold humor. The theater’s acoustic is extremely alive, making some scenes almost unbearably loud when actors shout overlapping lines and tread heavily on the raised wooden stage. The staging also oddly favors the longer side of the stadium-style seating.
Nevertheless, the production is recommended to adventurous theatergoers who understand theater can be equally entertaining and serious-minded.
What: “Cloud 9,” presented by Tiny Engine Theatre
Where: Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Road, Durham
When: 8 p.m. June 16-18, 23-25; 2 p.m. June 19
Tickets: $17 (seniors, students, military $12)
Info: 919-578-1654 or tinyenginetheatre.com