A Nourishing Question

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Watching Antaeus Theatre Company's latest production of Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 is a bit like having a fantastic chef cook you a meal that . . . you don't particularly care for.

Let me unpack that a bit for you.

Cloud 9 is a gender bending, fluidly sexual exploration of the fascinating variety of ways that we humans can couple (or in at least one case triple).  Originally written in 1978, the two act, very British play spans the empire and time from Africa in the 1880's to an English park in the 1980's.  Act one is a take on the  drawing room comedy of manners.  We're deep in the male dominated colonies and everyone seems to be in love with someone they shouldn't be and homosexuality is described as a condition worse than diphtheria.

To add to the point/amusement, several of the roles are cast across genders and even races - so we have a man playing a victorian wife, a woman playing a boy, and a white man playing a black house boy. Act Two jumps back to England and instead of being driven by men, it's the woman's voice we hear.  Several of the characters cross over from act one but instead of aging 100 years as we jump from the 1880's, they age only 25 years.  Everyone's love life is still problematic but now it's all out in the open - mostly.

Now, Antaeus is one of the finest small theaters in Los Angeles.  Without doubt they've got the deepest bench of talent of any intimate theater in the city.  So much so that they double cast every show with two ensembles.  Their mission is to do the "great plays."  With Cloud 9 the company's acting chops are in full display. Ms. Churchill's play gives them a chance to flex their technique:  everyone gets to play at least two roles; there are the two distinct styles of each act; everyone gets their character revealing monologue.  For a company like Antaeus, Cloud 9 is an easy choice.

And, if technique is what you’re after, the play delivers.  You get to hear Cloud 9 and that's no small feat.

But Cloud 9, the play, is a long, didactic journey and it’s destination doesn’t live up to the two hours and forty minutes.  The shift in time and setting are fun but since the play was written we’ve seen these historical mashups done better.

Now part of this is personal aesthetics, or taste.  The other part is a deeper question that as Antaeus, the company, becomes as accomplished as the Antaeus actors, they'll need to ask with greater urgency.  Namely, "Why are we doing this play now for this audience?"  

What does a play about sexual identity in colonial Africa have to do with Los Angeles today? I know why Antaeus chose this play for its actors.  What I don’t know is why they chose it for their audience.  That’s the question that will lead to great plays that will leave us more than technically impressed.  We’ll be nourished.

Cloud 9 plays at the Antaeus Theatre Company in NoHo through April 24.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

Photo: Geoffrey Wade Photography