Jobsite’s Cloud 9 floats along on whimsy and weirdness

Noises Off! meets Love Actually

Cloud 9

Three of five stars

Shimberg Playhouse, David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. WC MacInnes Place, Tampa.

Through Aug. 6: Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.


813-229-7827. Learn more.

click to enlarge Defying conventions: David M. Jenkins (as Betty) sings "A Boy's Best Friend is His Mother" to Edward (Tatiana Baccari). - Pritchard Photography
Pritchard Photography
Defying conventions: David M. Jenkins (as Betty) sings "A Boy's Best Friend is His Mother" to Edward (Tatiana Baccari).

If we learned anything from Benny Hill, it’s that the British are obsessed with sex. The peccadillos and peculiarities of amorous Anglos are on full display in Cloud 9, the cross-generational, cross-dressing English comedy onstage through Aug. 6 at Tampa’s Jobsite Theatre.

There’s really no plot to Cloud 9; the first act takes place in British colonial Africa in 1879, the second in modern London. The conceit is that many of the same characters appear in both acts — for them, it’s just 25 years later.

Accept that, and you’ll come out just fine.

What transpires — over three hours — is a frequently hilarious, occasionally head-scratching farce replete with slamming doors and stolen romantic moments, performed by a cast of rotating and seemingly (at first) unrelated characters. Is it Noises Off! or Love Actually? Well, it’s a little of both. For the most part, however, Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 is an original, unusual comedy that implores us to buy into its own odd, rather dysfunctional universe.

Under Gavin Hawk’s direction, the characters move fluidly around the tiny black box that is the Jobsite stage. In Act I, Giles Davies is Clive, a strutting officer in the British army who’s there to keep the (never-seen) local “savages” in check. He lives with his family — wife Betty (played with prissy panache by Jobsite Artistic Director David Jenkins, the show VIP) and bratty son Edward (Tatiana Baccari).

Yes, Betty is played by a man, young Edward by a woman. There’s your first clue that this scenario, as Gilbert and Sullivan liked to say, is rather topsy-turvy.

Also hanging ‘round the plantation porch are Betty’s mother (Amy E. Grey), a robust Army type (Hugh Timony), a surly servant (Spencer Paul Myers), a live-in nanny and a widowed neighbor (both played, in separate scenes, by Katrina Stevenson).

The servant, Joshua, is black (his parents are killed by the British during a scuffle). Myers, the actor in the role, is white.

From the men, there’s a lot of chest-pounding talk about Queen Victoria, the glory of England and the proud fact that the sun never sets on the empire. The women prattle on about marriage as an obligation, the daily duties of a wife, and how you’re not supposed to enjoy sex with your husband.

Oh … and everybody’s randy as hell. As the first act unfolds, it seems as if every character — including the snot-nosed young boy — confesses to another how much they would enjoy (or have already enjoyed) having sex with them. The chat goes beyond the ol' "nudge nudge, wink wink," getting rather graphic at times.

Over the course, we lose track of just who’s male and who’s female, who’s related and who’s not. The point, I suspect, is that we’re all human animals with the same very basic instincts.

Or not. It could be that it’s all just being played for laughs.

click to enlarge Clive (Giles Davies) gets up close and personal with Mrs. Saunders (Katrina Stevenson). - Pritchard Photography
Pritchard Photography
Clive (Giles Davies) gets up close and personal with Mrs. Saunders (Katrina Stevenson).

Things take a more serious turn in Act II, which this reviewer found more enjoyable than the first. Societal mores and sexual oppression — and freedoms — have changed. But have they really?

Jenkins is back, but this time he’s playing the grown-up Edward, a gay man in the modern world. The goateed Davies plays an 8-year-old girl in a pink taffeta dress (I think I saw him on the cover of Frank Zappa’s We’re Only In It For the Money years ago) and Stevenson is Lin, an Irish lesbian looking for love.

Edward is involved with a businessman (Myers) who has a late-night liking for anonymous railway sex, which he describes in the opening scene. Baccari appears as modern-day Betty, still a bit daffy but adjusting well to the post-colonial climate.

click to enlarge Edward (David Jenkins), Victoria (Amy E. Gray) and Lin (Katrina Stevenson) summon the goddess Isis in Act II. - Pritchard Photography
Pritchard Photography
Edward (David Jenkins), Victoria (Amy E. Gray) and Lin (Katrina Stevenson) summon the goddess Isis in Act II.

Gray is transformed into Victoria, Edward’s younger sister, who was just an inanimate rag doll in the Africa setting (told you it was odd). The most riveting moment involves her, Jenkins’ Edward and Stevenson’s Lin drunkenly holding a séance to invoke the goddess Isis. It’s a tender scene, and one of the few in Cloud 9 that actually shows us what else is inside these people.

Characters from Act I re-appear as ghosts, for no apparent reason.

This production has several brilliant performances, and numerous laugh-out-loud moments, and moves at a brisk pace. All too often, however, we’re aware that these are American actors trying out British accents — with spotty success. And on the night I saw it, truth be told, sometimes it just wasn’t funny.

Whether that was the fault of the script (written in 1979), or some deficiency in this production, I couldn’t say. Every once in a while, the characters break into nonsensical song (it’s not a musical). At the end of the day, Cloud 9 is way up there in a bizarro stratosphere of its own making.


About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was born in St. Pete and spent the first 22 years of his life here. After a long time as an arts and entertainment journalist at newspapers around Florida (plus one in Savannah, Ga.) he returned to his hometown in 2014.You’ll find his liner notes in more than 100 CDs by a wide range of artists including...
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