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Even for those who might fancy themselves as ardent lovers of theatre, whether traditional or adventurous, large or financially hanging by a thread, Common Ground Theatre is a gem whose unequalled professionalism needs to be trumpeted to the masses. Tucked away in a nondescript building off of Hillsborough Road in Durham, Common Ground, especially in this particular performance, demonstrates that there is spectacular excellence if one is just a bit daring and willing to venture off the beaten track. Currently at Common Ground is Tiny Engine Theatre's production of Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill, a gender bending, time travelling drama/quasi-comedy that premiered in Devon, England in 1979. Reading up on this play beforehand, it sounded hopelessly and unnecessarily confusing, cliché-ridden and somewhat anachronistic, but that just proves what I believe to be true: plays are meant to be seen, not read or read about. This was, on all counts, a virtuosic and revelatory theatrical experience.
Having attended theatre in most of the small, independent theatre venues throughout the Triangle, one certainly does not expect large crowds. But, even by that standard, it was a bit disappointing — and depressing — that there were only nine (9) persons in the audience. So, only two more people watching than actors in the play! That fact appeared to have absolutely no effect on any of the actors, which made this performance that much more spectacular.
There are two acts that, at the same time, are inextricably intertwined and can almost stand on their own. The first, set in a British colony in Africa in 1880, has so many themes and moving parts that at the start you think you will never wrap your head around all the characters and relationships. But, thanks to the crisp writing of the playwright, the brilliant direction of Paul Sapp, and all of the actors, the story gels and then the real fun begins.
Act I's main character is Clive (played with delicious British haughtiness by John Paul Middlesworth). He lives for Queen Victoria, his family, and God, not necessarily in that order. His "wife" Betty (Nick Popio), is written to be played by a man, done here in a decidedly non-ironic manner so that after a few minutes it seems completely "normal." This is just one of the many characters who not only are not what they seem to be, but are meant to be played and cast as such. Joshua (Christopher Bynum), Clive's black servant played and written as a white man, has come to renounce his ethnicity so much so that he refuses to denounce the senseless murder of his parents by British soldiers. Edward (Denver Skye Vaughn) is Clive's son, whose burgeoning homosexuality has this very proper Brit in quite a snit. There are numerous gay and straight sexual encounters and even one suggesting pedophilia between Edward and Clive's "manly" explorer friend Harry Bagley (Josh Henderson) who comes to visit and proceeds to attempt to nail any person of any sex and any age.
The above is just the start. To describe and delineate all the relationships would be enough to supply soap opera storylines for a decade. But, that is just the surface. Cloud 9 is very deep water, and it's up to the viewer to dive as far as they feel capable and comfortable. Repression of your true nature, values in a marriage, friendship, equality of the sexes, parenting, acceptance of others, domination of others simply because you can — these are but some of the themes. While this may sound preachy and pedantic, there is quite a lot of humor, much of it presented in a stereotypically dry, wry British manner.
But, don't think that we can be smug and self-exalting in our opinions with regard to Victorian mores, whether sexual, political, or concerning failure to accept human differences. Just look at this week's real events.
Act I ends with a sham wedding between gay Harry Bagley and the housekeeper Ellen (Laurel Ullman), primarily taking place because of Harry's failed attempt to have sex with Clive.
Act II is set in relatively modern-day London in 1980, although the characters have only aged twenty-five years — just another mind trick from this clever script. Each of the seven actors now plays a character different from the one he or she played in Act I, although there is not always a direct correlation of each role from Act I to II. Confusing? Yes, a bit, but the best thing is not to worry about it; just let the dialogue and characters wash over you. The language and some of the scenes are more coarse and explicit, but it's still the same questions and themes: sex (numerous issues there!), acceptance of others, self-repression of feelings and goals. At the end, there is a meeting/reconciliation with some of the characters from both acts in a sort of "what would you tell you younger self." Certainly not a new idea, but very effective as presented here.
Even for these small theatre productions, Cloud 9 was particularly sparse. But for two small benches at both ends of the "stage" and a very brief wedding table, there were no sets or props. The only real expense and extravagance I saw was the outstanding Victorian costumes from the first and very end of the second act. The stage had the Union Jack (British flag) painted on it. This is an example of an artistic event that I wish I could go around shaking people to get off of your iPads and phones and go see. The acting is uniformly exemplary, for any level, and it is a story that retains both its authenticity and timeliness.
Cloud 9 continues through Saturday, June 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.