This past Friday, the St. Olaf theater department opened its production of “Cloud 9” by Caryl Churchill. Filled with non-traditional casting and a remarkable scenic and costume design, the production delivered a powerful statement on the intersection of repression, colonialism and identity.
“Cloud 9” is a bold complex play that utilizes absurdism to challenge the ways sexual orientation, gender, race and class identities intersected in both 19th century British colonial Africa and 1970s London.
“Holistically, the production was a marvelous success. “Cloud 9” is a powerful and frequently shocking play that requires a great deal of reflection from the audience,” Eli Aronson ’21 said.
The first act of the play, set in British colonial Africa, shocked the audience from the onset. “Cloud 9” immediately submerged the audience into the absurdist and bent reality with cross-gender, race and age casting. The play continued to shock through tense character dynamics, jarringly direct and profane dialogue and simulated sex acts. It was clear through the direction and performances that special attention was paid to these potentially problematic elements to ensure they effectively furthered the themes.
The second act, set 100 years later in 1970s London, was an interesting departure from the world created in the first act. The characters are free to explore and embrace their identities, but still struggle to fully overcome the repression developed in the first act.
While the show was well performed, there were some standout performances that made this production extraordinary.
Rachel Ropella ’20 performed with incredible strength and clarity of intention. Playing the secretive Harry Bagley and the bumbling Martin, Ropella’s attention to detail was evident in every scene, conversation and vignette. Bianca Davis ’21 performed her contrasting roles in the first act with excellent distinction and variety and in the second act, her performance as the lesbian single-mother Lin was a scene stealer.
Additionally, both Claire Chenoweth ’20 and Kendall Otness ’21 portrayed their roles with excellent dramatic gravitas that especially grounded the new reality in the second act. Seeing Chenoweth’s performance as the elderly mother Betty in act two expertly articulated the struggle of self-expression and societal oppression.
There were times when the pacing of the show lagged or accelerated unexpectedly. Some moments seemed to swell lethargically but were often immediately picked up by the energy of Ropella or Davis’ characters.
The scenic and costume design was decadent and tastefully absurd. The production transformed the proscenium Kelsey Theater into a thrust stage with the audience seated on the stage itself. Brian Bjorklund’s scenic design and Aimee Jillson’s costume design possessed a beautiful attention to detail and complemented the dramatic and absurdist themes of the play. The physical concept was seamlessly tied in with the overarching dramatic concept was a testament to the creative abilities of St. Olaf’s theater department.
Holistically, the production was a marvelous success. “Cloud 9” is a powerful and frequently shocking play that requires a great deal of reflection from the audience. It is encouraging to see that the St. Olaf theater department is unafraid to present difficult and uncomfortable art that forces the audience to think critically about how one is complicit in the oppression of others and oneself.