Brits in Snits

A good deal of rogering goes on in Cloud Nine, Caryl Churchill's dark farce about sexual identity that's now getting a first-class production by Echo Theatre at the Bath House Cultural Center. Rogering is British slang for you-know-what. Boffing. Having it off. All that nahsty nudge-wink, nudge-wink bedroom nonsense.

In Act 1, set in colonial Africa in the late 1800s, Clive, a British foreign office flunky, rogers the randy Widow Saunders, but never rogers his own wife, Betty. Betty wants desperately to roger the daylights out of Harry, a dashing explorer, but he's busy rogering both the native servant Joshua, and Clive and Betty's 9-year-old son, Edward. Harry marries but doesn't roger Edward's governess, Ellen. She'd prefer to be snogging lovely Betty, thank you veddy much.

And so it continues for 90 minutes of hilarious, imaginative comedy that serves up tasty bites of social commentary about the lustier aspects of human relationships--between men and women, adults and children, men and men, women and women, and every permutation in between. Act 1 also makes trenchant statements about uptight, hypocritical Victorian attitudes toward race, money, power and the limits of womanhood. But mostly it's about sex, so characters are given to saying to each other, in very proper accents, mind you, things like, "Want to go out to the barn and fuck?"

Caryl Churchill is a master of writing deliciously clever, tragicomic plays that diddle with traditional ideas of behavior while brilliantly challenging the accepted conventions of theater itself. In Cloud Nine, she does it with language, gender-flopped casting requirements and a deliberate warp in time.

In the first half of the play, a man (Donald Fowler) plays Betty in drag, but without a hint of camp. A white actor (Tim Demsky) plays the black servant, Joshua. One actress (the always marvelous Lulu Ward) portrays the slatternly Mrs. Saunders and the homely, repressed governess, often within the same scenes. Young, fey Edward is played in a sailor suit by an adult woman (Lydia Mackay).

This is pure Churchill, intentionally throwing off preconceived notions of gender and race. In many of her plays, including Top Girls, Serious Money and two new ones, Far Away and A Number, now onstage in London, she blows up the boundaries most playwrights abide by and tweaks the audience's expectations of who should be playing (or rogering) whom.

In Act 1, this all works beautifully, and the laughs flow loud and long as cross-dressing characters fairly trip over their unleashed libidos. In Act 2, set more than 100 years later but with the same characters only 25 years older, the orgy of gender-blending gets a little strained and doesn't deliver quite the same impact.

The second act, another 90 minutes long, takes place in the contemporary world (Echo Theatre director David Fisher has altered the setting from Churchill's London of 1979 to Manhattan of 2002). The same family members are back, but portrayed by different actors. Lulu Ward now is the older, wiser, more liberated Betty (she delivers a lovely soliloquy on self-discovery via self-pleasure). Donald Fowler is the grown-up, thoroughly gay Edward. Daughter Victoria, portrayed by a limp rag doll in the first act, is now an adult bisexual (played by Lydia Mackay) married to the dreary Martin (Chamblee Ferguson, who earlier was Harry, the African explorer). Victoria hooks up with lesbian Lin (Terri Ferguson), who's the mother of 5-year-old Cathy (played by James Crawford, who was Clive in the first act).

With the shock of the upside-down casting taken care of in the first act, the second half turns uncomfortably ponderous with its long discussions of sexual mores. Given that this half of the play takes a post-modern, almost post-apocalyptic view of relationships, the gays seem unnecessarily confused with their choices. The straights are merely snobby boors. This act winds to a close two or three times before the lights finally go down.

But those missteps are the fault of a script that was cutting-edge in 1979 and sounds a smidge creaky now. There's nothing at all wrong with the work of this luminous production. Rarely has a Dallas theater, large or small, boasted such a tight ensemble of talented actors. They handle the cross-casting admirably and never resort to commenting cheaply on even the most broadly drawn characters. Bulky James Crawford becomes that 5-year-old girl in Act 2, petticoats, maryjanes and all.

Cloud Nine requires just seven actors and two sets, but it's a monster to produce (no Dallas theater has attempted it since the mid-'80s). The material is intense, and the dozens of entrances, exits and quick costume changes are as physically taxing as a Chinese opera. Echo director David Fisher and his cast wrestle with all of Churchill's staging problems and come out the clear winner. Fisher's updating of the second-act script feels right, too, with references to the troubles in Northern Ireland changed to mentions of a ground war in Pakistan. It's all colonialism, after all.

The costumes by Thomas R. Jaekels are gorgeous, particularly Act 1's corseted linens and silks. The set by Missy Desmond and Mandy Embry uses the small space efficiently and artfully, with large panels painted with images of the savannah and then of the New York skyline. Sound design by David Fisher is as crucial a part of the play as the actors themselves.

It would be wrong to tell theatergoers to split at the intermission of a play, even if Act 1 of Cloud Nine is the best and perhaps only reason to see it. There are moments of riveting acting in Act 2, and by staying, you do get the full thrust of Churchill's message about the sex mess. But it's the first 90 minutes of this one that make it worth the price of admission.

Oh, go ahead, go for the first half and then say screw it and go home.