Student actors at UNO have breathed life, vitality and truth into Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9. They have kept her provocative 1978 play vivid and meaningful. Although times and cultures have altered in 38 years, these youthful talents seem able to well-personify Churchill’s pointedly crossing of such boundaries, making clear much which still fascinates and resonates.

The script starts with satirical fun, a romp sending up Victorian era social conventions. Then everything becomes more serious, more modern, more trenchant.

As directed by Theatre Department new arrival Ryan Hartigan, the performances in the initial act hadn’t coalesced at the first preview of the two and a half hour experience. That made it seem heavier than it could be. The pacing stayed sluggish as if the cast was were still feeling its way. The script calls for a style which didn’t yet seem acquired.

In the subsequent act, everything came across with sincerity, depth and definition.

Churchill aims for continuity. Characters are transformed into later versions of themselves across separate periods. At times they intersect. She complicates this by calling for actors to take different roles in each period. This is one of many devices to pique us, to unsettle us while presumably suggesting universality. She also calls for cross-gender and cross-racial casting.

These elements, their ebb and flow, clearly seek to make us strive to look beneath the surface, to witness this experience not as portraying real life, but making it clear that, Brecht-like, there are multiple levels of meaning.

Hartigan’s program notes give some clues as to where this goes, saying that it is about “trying to be our true selves,” resisting “hate and destruction.” There is a considerable amount of ideas, questions and possible answers floating around. The best choice is for you to make your own discoveries. Observe, though, that the title implies some kind of bliss.

Act I occurs in an outpost of British rule and presumed civilization. South Africa 1882. Nine (n.b.) persons populate a tight little community. They are colonial administrator Clive, his wife Betty, his son and daughter Edward and Victoria, Betty’s mother Maud, Edward’s governess Ellen, a native house servant named Joshua, widowed neighbor Mrs. Saunders and visiting family friend Harry Bagley, an explorer.

Sexual liaisons, furtive or yearned for, underpin a lot of what happens. Given the period evoked, everyone tries to keep all this under wraps, under the multi-layered clothing.  A secondary element is some kind of not well-defined native revolt. One which Hartigan hadn’t yet made clear or emphatic.

Act II takes place 100 years later in modern England where open, free-wheeling sexuality is in full swing. Churchill’s characters, three of whom are the same as before, are, instead, only 25 years older. They are Betty plus her children Victoria and Edward. The others include gay woman Lin and gay man Gerry plus straight man Martin, a parallel to Clive.  They intersect on their paths to self-definition.This act has a lot going for it, worth the time to attend and ponder.   

Clearly you could become confused about who are these people, especially given that the actors have been cross-gendered and crossed-raced in different ways. The program book is useful. But, looking at it, you may get distracted.  

As for how else the characters are different, the modern ones are more open to their own emotions. As before, though, different liaisons materialize. Note: The talk about sex,which dominates the dialogue, is quite explicit.

Throughout, homosexuality is a recurring theme. So is the role of women. Promiscuity abounds. Beneath the surface are implications, too, about indifferent cruelty of British political domination.   

Several performers stand out. Maggie Fisher, as the boy Edward, offered a great take on being a willful child. And as modern Lin, whose gay life revolves around obsessively avoiding commitment, Fisher had convincing toughness, full of personality. 

Ryann Woods did exceptionally well with the tender, sweet emotions of the older Betty. Prior to that, she capably doubled as Ellen and Mrs. Saunders so much that you might not even realize that she has both roles.

As the initial Betty, Brandon Williams kept her genuine and vulnerable, making her emotional vulnerability completely convincing, never camping it up, always genuine. As the adult Edward, he continued just as believable.   

The other four members of the cast always did well in ensembles, expertly singing and dancing together. They made the best of the second part of this play.   

Hartigan wisely chose to not have his actors attempt accents so as to not complicate their tasks. He also says this makes the stories more relevant to our own lives.

The production includes music with many contemporary songs in the second act, such as those by Pat Benetar, David Bowie, The Police and Nico. John Landrie and Meg Perry sang and played them with several instruments and sounded sturdy and dynamic.   

Charles V. Fisher’s sets looked very imaginative, especially the carpet-map of South Africa, a fascination in itself.

In as the recent past, the tiny program book looks amateurish. The cover does not name the playwright, despite a large amount of empty black space. Caryl Churchill’s name is not even given in full in Hartigan’s sloppily edited notes. They include the rare word “mansplainer” which, FYI, means “misogynist.” 

As usual, equally lacking is biographical information about the creator of the material being interpreted.  Cloud 9 won off-Broadway’s Obie Award in 1981 and the following year her Top Girls got one. Churchill’s 1987 play Serious Money garnered other awards. Vinegar Tom, Mad Forest and A Number number among what else this British woman has written.

The play has many fascinating, colorful, intellectually stimulating elements; this cast and director did exceptionally well with much of it.

Cloud 9 continues through Mar.5 at UNO Theatre, Weber Fine Arts Building, 6001 Dodge Street. Weds.-Sat. 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $6-$16. UNO students: free.

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