by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Greg Leaming
Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory
FSU Center for the Performing Arts‘ Cook Theatre
5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarsota, 941-351-8000
April 3 to 22, 2012

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

In this inventive, quite postmodern mixture of genres as well as settings, dates, and sexual identities of characters, FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training students reach a “Cloud Nine“---that is, a blissful production. Act I opens on a tableau of a British aristocratic household against a silhouetted African sky near the end of the 1890s. Family boss Clive (imposing, stiff-upper-lipped Joseph McGranaghan) leads a sung tribute to Queen and country. He’s been busy managing natives and having upstarts flogged. Meanwhile his black servant Joshua (played by sour-faced white Zak Wilson) has been rude to wife Betty (Jesse Dornan, hilariously huge and cheery-teary dependent), who’s attracted to the brave explorer Harry. He’s welcomed as a visitor by Clive, who’s yet to know of Harry’s sexual advances to Betty and adventures with son Edward (Lindsay Tornquist, straddling gay with pitiable need to seem straight for daddy). Clive hypocritically proceeds to pursue sex with Mrs. Saunders (strong Erin Whitney), a widow seeking protection from the natives. Betty, confused by her attraction to Harry, is unaware that Ellen, nanny to her daughter Victoria (a rag doll), is in love with her. (Kelly Campbell is very funny, either harshly proclaiming Edward likes to play with dolls, or silent through clenched teeth, or announcing her emotions.) Through it all, Maud looks on and tries to advise as the traditional grandmother (stable Sarah Brown).

By the end of Act I, Clive’s revealed to Betty he knows about her and Harry, made a speech about resisting lust (despite his own failing), and forced a marriage on Harry. The bride’s a surprise. Natives are restless about British troops‘ latest killings, which include Joshua’s parents. He shows up at the end of a racous wedding party with a gun. Bang! All’s surreal that was mostly satirical. Farce has reached realism. And this is an appropriate lead-in, as it turns out, to the second half of Churchill’s play.

Act II begins 100 years later (or 1980, when the play appeared onstage).The characters are appropriately dressed for the time. But they are only 25 years older, as they have changed or matured by just that much. The minimal set is of a park. Action extends through winter into spring, then early and late summer. The style is naturalistic and there’s but one example of gender-bending: Zak Wilson plays a bratty young girl named Cathy, daughter of Lin (likeable Sarah Brown), an assured lesbian who lacks assurance in her mothering. Small wonder, since while she’s trying to make out with Lindsay Torquist’s growing brash, potty-mouthed Victoria, Cathy’s off being besieged by a gang. Victoria’s son Tommy is unseen, as she seems to wish husband Martin (Francisco Rodriguez, properly puzzled) would be. Edward (Joseph McGranaghan) is now a nondescript gardner. Changed, Betty is the most interesting character (Erin Whitney, calm, collected). Having discovered satisfying self-sex, she’s come to terms with liberating not only herself but letting her family (which in a way will include Lin’s) do the same. How successful are they in also adapting to a new Britain, no longer a colonizer but still fighting abroad? Their previous selves drop in to allow a comparison.

Audience members I talked to generally agreed (as do I) that the first act comes off better than the second. I suspect the reasons are that the author is more original and adept in many dimensions of character, dialogue, and style in the Victorian segment. It’s often hilarious, with many scenes that move quickly. (Director Greg Leaming always seems to score best with presenting farce, the broader the better, and satire.) Mainly, I think, Churchill’s points about the need for change from previous political and social, particularly sexual, attitudes and actions have mostly been met. Since her play first appeared, sexual repression has generally given way to freedom. Gay identities and sexual alliances have reached majority acceptance. Colonialism is widely desired to be eschewed, even under the guise of advisement, as are foreign wars. The nuclear family generally replaces the Victorian type. Racism still exists but is not condoned. There’s lesser need for the corrective sting of satire in the behaviors of Act II as of Act I. Yet the play‘s modern park is not a garden of Eden, populated completely by loving, creative, attractive people who also feel self-fulfilled. In Churchill’s mirror, we still may see too much of the opposite, as well as how the enemies hiding or outside are of our own family and possibly even us.

The production is dedicated to its fine set and lighting designer Rick Cannon, who is retiring. He has served FSU/Asolo Conservatory for almost the period covered by the play. Doing superb work alongside him, David Covach designed memorable costumes; Michelle Hart, hair and wigs; Steven Lemke, sound. Patricia Delorey oversaw speech, especially accents in Act I, well. Margaret Eginton is responsible for coaching the correct movement and Benjamin Boucvalt for fight direction. Erin MacDonald stage managed the 2 hour, 15 minutes of the Conservatory’s best show of its year.  

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