Three for All

Rep-to-SubShakes-to-Shotgun: three plays about sacrifices and female self-fulfillment.

What would you sacrifice for love, for security, for family or country? And would whatever you’d gained be worth the price you paid? Three very different plays this week share these questions, ranging from a tangy satire to a classic tragedy to an outright melodrama. Interestingly enough, all three works also examine the roles women have been assigned, either in the family or in history, and provide maps of female self-fulfillment through what might be considered transgressive sexual practices for their time. Most transgressive and pleasingly outrageous of the batch is Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, the must-see season closer at the Berkeley Rep. Like an exotic fruit, this one’s tart, sweet, and strange in the same mouthful. Churchill tackles colonialism, racism, Victorian morality, and homophobia with a glee that belies the gravity of the issues she raises.

As pertinent today as it was twenty years ago when it broke over the newly awakened British theater scene (state-sponsored censorship of theatrical works had ended just a decade earlier), Cloud Nine begins in colonial Africa, where proper British patriarch Clive has taken his family, and ends in 1980s Britain. Through an unexplained time dilation, only twenty-five years have passed for the family — the children are grown, the parents separated. It seems odd on paper, but Churchill makes it work, just as we accept in her Top Girls that you can throw a dinner party for a group of famous dead or fictional women (Pope Joan, Isabella Bird, Dull Gret) — and they’ll all show up.

Clive is so busy maintaining his narrowly defined masculine role (“It is through our fathers that we love our Queen, and God,” he instructs his son Edward) and lusting after his widowed neighbor that he fails to notice that his friend Harry is blithely screwing his way through Clive’s household. Clive is everything that is wrong with the institution of empire — the arrogance, the sense of entitlement, the utter cluelessness — and a paragon of male chauvinism to boot, comparing the savagery of Africa to the “dark female lust” that threatens to poison even the most pious of women. Meanwhile Clive’s wife Betty withers on the vine, his children stock up on neuroses, and the servants wreak what small havoc they can.

Cloud Nine is one of the juiciest shows the Rep has given us in a while, and that is as much a result of the great acting as the script itself. Danny Scheie is especially wonderful as Betty, Clive’s stir-crazy wife. There’s a little dance Betty does upon learning that the family will soon have a visitor — twisting back and forth like a toy — that cleverly captures a woman limited to a tiny range of acceptable motion and emotion. Scheie also has a great voice for the part, making seemingly neutral lines like “But I wanted to wear my beads” hysterically funny. Timothy Crowe gets to play both stiff-upper-lipped Clive and pigtailed Cathy. Stacy Ross, whose legs appear to start just under her chin, is properly flustered as governess Ellen, devil-may-care as lesbian mom Lin, and conflicted as the widow Saunders, who can’t stand Clive’s attitude but can’t resist his particular skills. Angela Brazil is young Edward in the first act and Edward’s sister Victoria in the second; as the first she is all id, the second all uncertain superego, as she agonizes over whether to stay with her husband or not. Matthew Boston is first glowering and potentially dangerous as Joshua, then sweet and longing as Edward, who longs to be a wife and finds himself instead in a highly unusual arrangement with his sister and her girlfriend. The manly explorer Harry (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) returns as the puzzled, would-be liberated husband Martin of the second. “What is the point of being liberated,” he asks, “if it makes you cry all the time?” And finally, there is Cynthia Strickland, who as the older Betty has the most fabulous testament to self-love ever penned (“I thought if I touched myself there would be nothing there”) and delivers it with the utmost grace.

If you’re uncomfortable with homosexuality (male and female), the f-word, class struggle, children encouraged to hit each other, and glowing descriptions of masturbation as the path to self-realization, this play may horrify you. And then again you may find, as the song says, that everything’s fine when you reach Cloud Nine.

Everything is not fine in Alexandria, where Marc Antony ignores his obligations and Cleopatra prepares her feasts as Rome grows angry at their transgressions. Unlike Cloud Nine‘s characters, who find themselves sacrificing their passion and vitality for the sake of family and tradition, the protagonists of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra are playing for higher stakes as they give their lives for love and country.

Antony and Cleopatra is clumsy for Shakespeare. Obviously drawn to the Romeo and Juliet flavor of the story — Antony, believing his lover dead, fell on his sword; Cleopatra killed herself soon after — Shakespeare judiciously rearranged history and motivations to suit his vision, then littered the play with glaring anachronisms. Yet where the R&J kids move with alacrity when it suits them, it takes a really long time for Antony in particular to die (he flubs his own stabbing and then goes around begging people to finish him off), making for unintentionally comic theater. Not to mention that it’s hard, pre-seppuku, to keep track of Antony’s mood swings as he vacillates between his loyalty to Rome (represented by Caesar) and Cleopatra. One minute he’s in Rome, marrying Caesar’s sister Octavia and negotiating with the upstart Pompey; the next he’s stroking Cleo’s wig and naming himself Emperor of Egypt.

As for the femme fatale in the mix, popular culture has not been kind to Cleopatra VII Philopater, the last of Egypt’s Pharaohs. While sober academic heads believe her to have been a rather unattractive woman (she apparently had a long, hooked shnozz and what one source politely calls “masculine features”) and a masterful administrator (fluent in at least nine languages, she was the first Ptolemy to actually speak Egyptian), filmmakers have turned things around so that she emerges a voluptuous sybarite interested only in male conquest. Popular imagination gives us Theda Bara in heavy kohl and scanty costumes; history gives us a woman who led armies, had relatives murdered, and coolly calculated which Romans would best serve her ambitions. Shakespeare hit somewhere in the middle, envisioning her as a clever, manipulative queen obsessed with the Roman triumvir Marc Antony yet prepared to sacrifice him to protect Egypt.

Sub Shakes does more justice to Shakespeare than Shakespeare did to Cleopatra, but it’s a bit of a slog at three hours. Stan Spenger and Pamela Wylie once again take the leads, and while Spenger’s Antony bears a strong resemblance to his recent Pericles, Wylie’s Cleopatra is a lot slinkier and more multifaceted than her Thaisa was, perhaps because this time there are no snake puppets (well, one very small one) or miniature coffins to contend with. Zach Gossett, who played Benvolio in last year’s R&J, is back (and much stronger) as Octavius Caesar, a man with a questionable relationship with his sister and an iron hand on the Roman Empire. Self-assured, steady, and powerful, Gossett’s Octavius contrasts nicely with Spenger’s meandering, lust-confused Antony. This is a stronger batch of actors in general than graced Pericles, with nice turns from Ross Harkness as Lepidus (the third member of the triumvirate that succeeded the murdered Julius Caesar) and Scott Daniel as Agrippa.

The most emotionally draining of these three new productions has to be Maria Irene Fornes’ Abingdon Square, presented by the Shotgun Players at the Julia Morgan Center. In a coming-of-age story, Abingdon Square‘s orphaned protagonist Marion marries a much older man for security but finds love elsewhere, a dangerous proposition at a time when women aren’t even allowed to vote. In a string of short scenes that span a decade in the characters’ lives, we watch as young Marion first yields gratefully to her marriage, then begins to defy society and her husband Juster in pursuit of her own spiritual and sexual passion. Everyone makes sacrifices in this one, losing either their childhood, sanity, or sense of honor over the course of the play.

Cuban-American playwright Fornes is an unrepentant, unvarnished feminist who writes in a lyrical, often quite formal-feeling style and claims the tradition of Beckett and Ionesco as her own. More accessible than Beckett and emotionally hotter than Ionesco, Fornes’ storytelling creates characters who seem both real and artificial. This tension, and the often choppy scenes — one consists entirely of Marion rushing through the drawing room, putting on a cloak — can be a little off-putting for audiences accustomed to a more traditional narrative structure, but they have their own logic which becomes clearer as Marion comes into her own.

The set is lovely and simple, a drawing room defined by swags of lacy fabric and a picture window framing the jungle of Juster’s plants, the only visible wildness in Marion’s world. The play’s symbolism is extended through the way the set is used — both Marion’s lover Frank and the mysterious gardener move between the wild exterior and the staid interior through this window, trailing the dangers of the outside world in their wake, while Juster and his son Michael use the doors like the civilized, well-behaved men they are. Interestingly, the other women (Marion’s relatives) rarely enter scenes from outside, instead materializing quietly, extensions of the domestic sphere Marion so uncomfortably inhabits (“I do not know how to run a house,” she says seriously, when at fifteen she is discussing her impending marital obligations).

Abingdon Square ends neither in tragedy nor triumph, but just at the moment when Marion is making a breakthrough in her understanding of love. As Fornes says of her work, “Women have to find their natural strength, and when they do find it, it comes forth with bitterness and it’s erratic.” Fornes doesn’t patronize her audience by spelling everything out or making everything okay; the ending, sad and uncertain as it is, is all the more real for the stylized quality of the rest of the play.

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