Gallery Players kick off season with character-swapping ’Cloud Nine’

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For all of us living in the enlightened 21st century, there’s nothing more delightful than making fun of our uptight, repressed Victorian cousins. At first, Caryl Churchill’s "Cloud Nine," directed by Tom Herman at the Gallery Players, seems to fit nicely into this pattern.

The first act takes place in colonial Africa where Clive (Mark Battle), a colonial administrator, struggles with the natives; his wife, Betty (Tim Demsky), who hankers after the famed explorer Harry Bagley (Eric Hanson), a closeted pederast who has abused Clive’s young son, Edward (Holly Golden); and his own desire for the comely and high-spirited widow, Mrs. Saunders (Stephanie Weyman).

Complicating the situation, the household also incorporates Clive’s mother-in-law, the outspoken Maud (Brooke Delaney); a surly native servant named Joshua (Patrick Toon); and Edward’s governess, Ellen (Stephanie Weyman), a lesbian who falls in love with Clive’s wife. Driving home the play’s take on gender, racism and child-rearing, the black servant is played by a white man, the wife is played by one of the tallest, broadest male actors, and Edward’s sister is played by a doll.

Act II, however, shifts the scene from a British colony in Africa in 1880 to London in 1979. But for the characters, it is only 25 years later.

Betty is now a grandmother (played by Delaney, who in the first act was her mother). Edward is a young, gay man (played by Toon, the surly servant of Act I). Victoria (the former doll, now played by Weyman, the former governess and widow) is a mother and wife struggling with changing gender roles and her own needs.

In addition, Edward has a lover, the promiscuous Gerry (played by Demsky, Clive’s wife in Act I), and Victoria has both a husband, Martin (Hanson, previously the explorer) and a lesbian lover, Lin (Golden, who was Edward in Act I). To top it all, Battle (Clive in Act I) is now Cathy, Lin’s hilariously pigtailed, 4-year-old daughter.

The challenge for the audience watching this fascinating and very funny play is to figure out exactly where the author stands. There’s nothing particularly new or interesting about taking potshots at the hypocrisy of the Victorians. But does Churchill believe the personal freedoms of the 20th century are long-awaited improvements or excesses that are more reactions to - than a cure for - that hypocrisy? It’s hard to tell.

What one can be sure of, however, is the excellent direction and superb acting the Gallery Players bring to this production. And the fact that the actors play two (in one case three) distinct characters is all the more a wonder.

Of particular note are Battle, who transforms himself effortlessly from the ridiculous, self-satisfied Clive in his beige colonial casuals to the petulant Cathy in her tight-fitting pinafore; Delaney, who gracefully loses 25 years to become both her own daughter and twice as sympathetic in the process; and Weyman, who plays the governess, the widow and the young mother with equal verve and passion.

Also noteworthy are the designers responsible for creating the ever-present mood and atmosphere that work so well in this production - Mark T. Simpson who re-created 19th-century Africa with drapes and wicker furniture; costume designer Jenna Rossi-Camus, who is at home both north and south of the equator, G. Benjamin who takes the audience from the intensity of the tropics to the cool light of London, and Jeremy Wilson, who keeps the birds chirping to remind everyone of exactly where they are.

Herman, who directed last season’s "Lobby Hero," has once again shown he’s a great asset to the Gallery Players for many reasons, not the least of which is his ability to hold judgment in check while giving free rein to irony.

For all those troubled by uncertain times, "Cloud Nine" is both a wonderful reminder that we live here on Earth and a comforting assurance that no matter what happens, life will probably go on.

The Gallery Players’ production of "Cloud Nine" plays through Sept. 26, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $12 seniors and children under 12. The Galley Players are located at 199 14th St., between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Park Slope. For more information, call (718) 595-0547.

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