Cloud 9

★★★★ ½
Through June 25
Common Ground Theatre, Durham

There are only two things missing in the opening act of Tiny Engine Theatre Company’s production of Cloud 9 at Common Ground Theatre. The first is a cheesy, sinister organ cue to underscore all the cheesy, sinister plot revelations. The second is what people used to call a lick of common sense.

The latter’s absence fuels the ludicrous potboiler that begins this rewarding farce of colonialism and gender roles. The year is 1880, and the British Empire is still presumably on the rise—somewhere far from this sagging outpost in the veritable Heart of Darkest Africa—as the family of Clive (a memorable John Paul Middlesworth), the district’s manager for the Crown, clings none too nobly to the few remaining trappings of civilization (Western, naturally).

Unluckily, they’re quickly beset from all sides—not in the least by their playwright, Caryl Churchill, who writes that Clive’s African servant must be performed by a white actor (a stolid Christopher Bynum), and that his wife, Betty, be played by a man (Nick Popio, in a major step forward by the emerging actor). The script sets up more mischief when Clive’s son and daughter, Edward and Victoria, are written respectively for a woman (Denver Skye Vaughn, in a notable regional debut) and a children’s doll.

Meanwhile, the ever-crisp Laurell Ullman plays a frowzy governess and an Out of Africa stand-in, while Noelle Barnard Azarelo keeps a proverbial stiff upper lip as Betty’s grim, prim mom, and Josh Henderson nails disreputable explorer Harry Bagley.

Viewers will be shocked (shocked!) to see the thin veneer of civilization gradually begin to peel away, exposing the characters’ most illicit and seething desires. (And where is that damned organ cue?) The ensemble is drolly dressed in various degrees of Victorian drag by costumer Ella Brooks, before the playwright reshuffles the characters’ casting for the second act.

Churchill’s mix-and-match strategy underlines the genetic caprices that place a spectrum of personalities and genders in myriad human forms. In Act Two, we watch this talented cast swap roles, under Paul Sapp’s direction, and then pick the action up a century later, in a sensitive and only sometimes comic study of a group of friends and lovers in 1980s London.

As we do, there’s a sense of an extended family reunion, where a clan’s quirks and physical traits echo and recombine, unexpectedly, over several generations. As both the world and this group wake up from history, Churchill’s characters forsake some useless gender roles and try others on for size, negotiating to the end with their relationships to the past, themselves, and each other. Like we all do. Strongly recommended.