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UCI Players in 7th Heaven on ‘Cloud 9'

The celestial euphoria suggested by the ironic title of Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9"--at UC Irvine’s Fine Arts Village Theatre through Saturday--would seem beyond conception, let alone attainment, in a Victorian outpost of colonial Africa.

But anything is possible at the remote jungle station where the first half of this subversive comedy unfolds in 1889. More like a Monty Python madhouse than a last bastion of Empire, it is rife with lunatic characters desperately seeking release from the very conventions of sexual repression, male chauvinism and imperialist ideology that they so primly cherish and uphold.

Churchill also has a man playing a woman, a woman playing a boy, a rag doll playing a girl and a white man playing a black houseboy. If that is not kaleidoscopic enough, the cast doubles in different roles in the second act. It takes place a century later in contemporary London with three characters from the first act considerably transformed and, miraculously, only 25 years older.

When “Cloud 9" burst on the theatrical scene--first in London in 1979 and then in New York in 1981, where it ran for several years Off Broadway--it was hailed as a singularly brilliant achievement. The UCI production, under the direction of Eli Simon, confirms that assessment. He has assembled a fine student cast,

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moreover. And the technical aspects of the production, notably the scenic, lighting and costume designs, are splendid.

For all its sexual humor, “Cloud 9" is actually motivated by a serious social conscience. Even while spoofing conventional morality with bawdy directness, it manages to convey a deeper sense of purpose by drawing parallels between sexual, racial and ideological exploitation. And the tone of the second act turns surprisingly introspective--though it, too, never fails to evoke moments of wild hilarity.

But if “Cloud 9" represented a cutting edge of feminist social conscience in its day, 10 years later it unwittingly testifies to how quickly issues change. What neither Churchill nor anyone else foresaw when she wrote the play was the coming of AIDS, which has wrought an immense transformation in thinking about sexual freedom and liberated life styles. With its pre-AIDS consciousness, “Cloud 9" now has an oddly dated feeling.

Director Simon seems not to have noticed. If anything, he has exaggerated the problem by advancing the year of the second act to 1989. Churchill’s “present time” of a decade ago should have been left the way it was, when hip Londoners did feel as her characters do. In the UCI staging, particularly with ‘70s-ish rock music swelling in the background, the anachronism is palpable.

Even so, the deepening of feeling in the second act (though a bit preachy) affords relief from the strictly knockabout antics of the first. And the more variable dynamics of tone and texture also save us from a certain monotony of style that begins to creep into the bravura performances by intermission.

James Calleri, who goes over the top nicely as bustled Betty in the first act, turns in a beautifully modulated performance in the second as Gerry, a rough-trade hustler. Kitty Balay shines gently in the second act as a post-Victorian Betty after frolicking like a fey brat in the first as Edward, Betty’s son. Stacy Ross, who isn’t called upon to do much in the first act as Betty’s mother, Maud, comes on strongly in the second with a winning performance as the persuasively butch lesbian Lin.

Mark Booher anchors the first act as Clive, the outpost leader with a stiff upper lip (in more ways than one), and doubles less colorfully in the second as the grown Edward, now a gay gardener with hausfrau tendencies. Philip Thompson helps energize the first act with a volatile physical performance, alternating between servility and surliness as black Joshua, then irritably careens around the stage in the second as Lin’s 4-year-old daughter, Cathy.

Also acquitting himself well was Joel Goldes as Harry, the pederastic explorer, in the first act and Martin, the ridiculous male chauvinist writer, in the second. And Holly Holsinger plays three roles: the lucky-in-lust widow Mrs. Saunders and Eddie’s unlucky lesbian governess in the first act, Victoria, a naif who swings both ways, in the second.

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‘CLOUD 9'

A UC Irvine production of Caryl Churchill’s play directed by Eli Simon. With Mark Booher, James Calleri, Kitty Balay, Holly Holsinger, Joel Goldes, Stacy Ross, Philip Thompson. Scenic design by Zhaoping Wei. Costumes by Elizabeth Novak. Lighting by Leslie A. Barry. Sound by Max Morales. Musical direction by Dennis Castellano. At the Fine Arts Village Theatre, UCI campus. Today through Saturday at 8 p.m. and a matinee Saturday at 2 p.m. Tickets $6-$9. Box office: (714) 856-6616; or Ticketron: (714) 634-1300.

BACKSTAGE NOTES: The Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse’s “Morning After the Miracle” has been chosen as a finalist in the biennial drama competition of the American Assn. of Community Theaters, to be held June 23-24 in Omaha, Neb. It took first in the regional finals in Manteca on Saturday. . . .

South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa has extended its run of George Bernard Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell” by 2 days. The added shows will be given April 8 at 8 p.m. and April 9 at 2:30 p.m.

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