A bare table and a few chairs decorate the stage of a play packed with layered drama, setting up a visual contradition. Although aesthetically simple, the Emerson Stage production of Caryl Churchill’s emCloud Nine/em is a complex portrait of sexual relationships in British society with a century-jumping time structure.
Emerson stage will celebrate the 30th anniversary of emCloud Nine/em by debuting the show in the Semel Theater tonight at 8 p.m. The play, directed by performing arts professor Dr. Maureen Shea, attracts controversy for challenging views of gender and sexuality during the Victorian Era.
“This play is about the relationship between colonial oppression with sexual repression,” said Shea in an interview. “Churchill is trying to say it matters what our political systems are, as it affects us and our sexual relationships.”
Act one is told during the Victorian Era, describing the story of Clive (played by performing arts major Brock Bivens), a British colonial administrator, and his family as they arrive in Africa during native unrest. Act two is told during 1970s London. To the characters, however, only 25 years have passed. In addition to time change, the actors also assume different roles. Sophomore performing arts major Dalyn Cook plays Betty, Clive’s wife, in Act one, while junior performing arts major Angela Keefe takes the reins after intermission.
Act two finds the characters with more openness about their sexuality, but they still have issues with its sexual repression.
Though Shea believes the core of the play is a reflection on political systems, she said she did not choose to bring emCloud Nine/em to Emerson Stage for those undertones. Rather, she said she found that students needed a visual depiction to fully grasp the play’s themes.
In discussing the play with one of her advisees, she found that the student was having issues understanding the stage language and style, as well as the change in characters as described in the written play. She quickly discovered that other students found the play hard to picture as well. She realized that instead of explaining the play to them, she could show them through the stage.
Patrick McDonald, who plays a bisexual explorer before switching to a domineering but sensitive husband in act two, was initially turned off by emCloud Nine/em.
“I am pretty reserved when it comes to sex,” said the junior performing arts major. The director, however, was able to put the play in a new perspective for him.
“Shea always compared the text to Shakespeare, in that there are so many layers to all of the characters and so much going on under the surface,” McDonald said. “A difficult thing about Caryl Churchill’s writing is that something new happens every 10 seconds, so the characters are constantly changing and reacting in the scene while still remembering what you were holding onto 10 seconds ago.”
The difficult style and language of the play were not the only things that were necessary to contront. For Angela Keefe, who plays Edward and Betty, she found it was the idea of playing two characters as well as finding the character for both of them.
“You have to figure out how these radically different characters connect,” she said. “Finding my story for act one and act two was easy; it was discovering the overall trajectory that took time.”
Shea said that through working with the actors, she has felt a sense of validation: They overwhelmingly feel that they connect to the issues of the play and eventually learn to understand it.
The play may be tough for some to swallow: Pedophilia, oral sex, and gender bending are just some topics the play confronts. The performers ask for the audience to look beyond that.
“Come with an open mind,” McDonald says. “You’re going to be shocked, but you’re going to enjoy it.”
strongemCloud Nine/em will float to the Semel Theater Oct. 20-23 tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $8 for the Emerson community; $12 to the public./strong
emDiaz can be reached at email@example.com./em