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STAGE REVIEW : NO ONE’S FLOATING ON ‘CLOUD 9'

Times Theater Critic

There are two views of human nature. One is that it has fallen from something higher. The other is that it is working itself toward something higher.

Those who hold with the first view are not likely to admire “Cloud 9,” which is back with us, courtesy of South Coast Repertory. (Caryl Churchill’s play was first seen at the L.A. Stage Company West in 1983.) The show’s subject is sex, and it is not stepped around. All the words and most of the possible combinations are represented, with an attitude of humorous endorsement.

There’s no nudity. This isn’t another “Oh, Calcutta!” For one thing, Churchill knows how complicated human sexuality is. (As Shaw says, you can’t have the bottom story, without involving the top story.)

Still, Churchill thinks that we are beginning to sort sex out: to see it as a good, not as an embarrassing remnant of original sin. Maybe in another hundred years, we’ll really have a handle on it.

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Part One of “Cloud 9" happens 100 years ago. The setting is a British outpost in Africa, and the natives aren’t the only ones who are restless. Father (James Winker) is having an affair with a whip-carrying widow on the next plantation (Karen Hensel). Mother (Charley Lang) is aware of feelings for a handsome explorer (Carl Reggiardo). Young Edward (Patti Johns) also is in love with the explorer. Meanwhile, the boy’s governess (Hensel again) is in love with Mother.

All this passion is under the table, of course. Officially this outpost is a bastion of Victorian morality and the situation is resolved with a highly moral marriage between the two people in the tale who don’t have a spark of interest in each other--the explorer and the governess.

It’s like a Somerset Maugham story recast as a farce. In fact, it’s close to a bawdy Christmas pantomime, with “Mother” obviously being played by a man in skirts and Edward played by a woman. The message is that it’s OK to laugh: that sex does get people into ridiculous situations, made more ridiculous by their attempts to deny it.

Part Two of “Cloud 9" really gets complicated. It is set in modern London, a century later. However, Mother and Edward are still around. For them it’s only 25 years later. Moreover, they are played by different actors. Hensel becomes Mother and Winker becomes Edward.

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It’s a new world, and not necessarily a happier one. People can follow their natural bent now. Edward can settle down, or try to, with another man (Lang). His sister (Johns) can explore a relationship with another woman (Jenifer Parker) on the rebound from her oh-so-liberated husband (Reggiardo).

But nobody’s on Cloud 9.

People still get jealous and testy. The kids still have to be taken to the park. The dishes still have to be done. There’s comedy here too--that is to say, pain. Churchill doesn’t present her modern characters as being any less tangled than her Victorian ones, but they are at least living out their real lives.

If that sounds a bit programmatic: yes. Churchill is a feminist and a Marxist, and her didactic bent is more evident in South Coast’s “Cloud 9" than in the previous incarnation. Director Jules Aaron has added material from the London production, and it’s less easy to laugh off the show as a crazy, pointless sexual romp.

The AIDS crisis has also come along since ’83. This would surely be part of the play’s “analysis” (a key word for its feminist characters) of the sexual revolution today. Strangely, “Cloud 9" seems a bit of a period piece. Still, there’s a warning note about promiscuity in Lang’s monologue concerning an encounter with a passing stranger on a train. Junk sex is not what Churchill is arguing for.

If this reviewer’s “analysis” seems a bit solemn, the show isn’t--another remarkable thing about it. As with Churchill’s “Top Girls,” (also seen at SCR), the ideas spin merrily, even when they are quite serious ones.

One of the show’s theatrical pleasures is to see the actors leap to a vastly different role in the second play--Winker from an officious male to a nurturing one; Lang from a child-wife to a tough stud, equally immature; Johns from a skittish boy to a thoughtful young woman; John-David Keller from a skulking native servant with his own agenda, to a big goose of a girl who keeps howling for ice cream. (“Cloud 9" is about parenting as well as sex.)

Cliff Faulkner’s setting whisks from the African jungle to a London park with a few flicks of Paulie Jenkins’ lights, another example of the show’s quick-change artistry. Fundamentalists will loathe “Cloud 9,” and shouldn’t see it. Those who view the human race as a work-in-progress will welcome its candor, its wisdom and its wit.

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‘CLOUD 9'

Caryl Churchill’s play, at South Coast Repertory. Director Jules Aaron. Settings Cliff Faulkner. Costumes Shigeru Yaji. Lighting Paulie Jenkins. Musical director Diane King. Songs Maury Yeston and Denny Randell. Production director Paul Hammond. Stage manager Andy Tighe. With James R. Winker, Charley Lang, John-David Keller, Patti Johns, Jenifer Parker, Karen Hensel, Carl Reggiardo. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 8, with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 3. Closes Oct. 26. Tickets $18-$23. 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 957-4033.

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