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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Cloud 9’ sets far-reaching tone for Z-Fest

The play-reading festival at De Pere breaks new ground.
Caryl Churchill
Caryl Churchill

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Off Z-Fest goes, on a week-long romp with human gender “roles” and sexuality as fodder for theatrical exploration.

Z-Fest is a theater festival of staged play readings. The first reading was held Monday, June 9, in Dudley Birder Hall of St. Norbert College – “Cloud 9,” a two-act, two time-period venture into British mores by noted British playwright Caryl Churchill.

“Cloud 9” looks like a play, sounds like a play, is built like a play, but its content is vastly different than standard play fare. “Cloud 9” is safe for theatergoers who are not offended by anything, basically, in matters of sexuality.

Without going into great detail, Caryl Churchill deliberately sets off to get into to the viewer’s head. For instance, early in “Cloud 9,” I had this discussion with myself: “That person playing the wife is a man. Is the director toying with me? Is the director following the playwright’s orders? If it’s the playwright, everything in this play may be turned upside down.” It turns out that Caryl Churchill set out to tip over apple carts one after the other. It’s on purpose that the wife is played by a man.

“Cloud 9” is funky, funny, twisty and unlike anything to make its way to the stage around here – and one of the points of Theatre Z, which is putting on Z-Fest with committed actors and directors from the region. Z-Fest reveals there’s a whole another level of intellect and thoughtful adventure out there in Packerland (excuse me, but Packerland is the common perception of life in these quarters; Z-Fest states, “Wrong, again,” about the perception).

Stephen Rupsch and April Beiswenger of the St. Norbert College theater faculty are producers of Z-Fest.

“Cloud 9” is directed by Laura Riddle, with Courtney Sherman as music director – both of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay faculty. Act I is set in 1880 in British-occupied Africa. Act II switches to 1980 London, with characters of Act I advanced 25 years in the characters’ time. The Z-Fest actors move about the stage for scenes. Costuming is partial – to set key elements of a character. A few props are used. One prop is a doll that represents a baby girl who is seen grown up, and enacted by an actor, in Act II. Another prop is a doll that a boy character (played by a young woman) likes to play with, for which he is ridiculed. In “Cloud 9,” Caryl Churchill busily knits a theatrical sweater with one arm shorter than the other, mismatched pockets and a droop in the back; you wear it anyway and enjoy the unique style, as such. The play won Drama Desk and Obie awards. The cast of “Cloud 9” consists of Carol Cassel, Andrew Delaruelle, Justin Gulmire, Derek James Knabenbauer, John Mariano, Cherran Dea Rasmovicz and Natalie VandenHeuvel. Each plays more than one role, with some roles portraying, as one character says, sinful and illegal behavior. While “Cloud 9” is a comedy (often), its humor quite topsy-turvy.

“Cloud 9” will be repeated at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 14, to open a marathon of all five plays in Z-Fest. Five play readings back to back in one day – that’s about as far-reaching as the material in the plays.

Here’s a look ahead at the rest of Z-Fest, with cast members included:

- “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” by Sarah Ruhl, today, Tuesday, June 10, directed by Merlaine Angwall. Winner of the Glickman Prize, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony nominee for Best Play, the play is set in the 1880s at the dawn of the age of electricity. Based on the bizarre historical fact that doctors used vibrators to treat “hysterical” women (and some men), the play centers on a doctor and his wife and how his new therapy affects their entire household. Andrew Delaruelle, Carolyn Silverberg, Sarah Gorski, Justin Gulmire, Erin Zimmerman, Larry March, Kathleen Donnelly, Linda Feldman.

- “Take Me Out” by Richard Greenberg, Wednesday, June 11, directed by Lee Kerwin. Winner of the 2003 Tony Award, “Take Me Out” looks at a star professional baseball player who comes out as gay. He assumes that everyone will accept the news, but he wrong, and the reverberations move through his entire team. Andrew Delaurelle, Adam Elmergreen, Justin Gulmire, Cameron Hitchcock, Lee Kerwin, Jerry Lesperance, Ron Lotte, Ian Wisneski.

- “The International Stud” by Harvey Fierstein, Thursday, June 12, directed by Teresa Aportela Sergott. In part one of Fierstein’s ground-breaking “Torch Song Trilogy” (Best Play Tony Award as well as Drama Desk, Obie, and Dramatist Guild awards) we follow the hero, Arnold Beckoff, after a fight with his boyfriend into a hilarious romp in a sex club. Justin Gulmire, Dan Terrio.

- “Blackbirds’ Garden” by Merlaine Angwall, Friday, June 13, directed by Stephen Rupsch. This will be the first public concert reading of the play. “Blackbirds’ Garden” focuses on the life of antebellum author, prison reformer and feminist Eliza Farnham during her tenure as matron for Mount Pleasant Female Prison (mid-1840s). The play investigates Eliza’s reforms and the opposition to her “treatments” during this seminal time in the American prison system. The reading will be followed by a discussion with the author. Lyle Becker, Chanda Daretas, Sarah Gorski, Justin Gulmire, Cameron Hitchcock, Kimberly King, Abigail Lee, Derek James Knabenbauer, Pam Obey, Ellen Rosewall, Teresa Aportela Sergott, Carolyn Silverberg, Rochelle Van Erem, Ian Wisneski, Ashley Wisneski.

VENUE: Dudley Birder Hall at St. Norbert College is located in the former St. Boniface Church at the corner of Fourth and Grant streets in De Pere. It’s a multi-purpose space. For Z-Fest, seating is set up for approximately 200 persons. The walls and towering arches of the former church are painted cream white. Above are acoustical clouds; the place does reverberate. The raised stage is spacious and airy. The St. Boniface building dates to the late 1800s and is a landmark for its classical exterior and clock tower.

THE PERSON: Dudley Birder started on the St. Norbert faculty in 1958 and has produced concerts and musicals ever since. He is retired from teaching. He continues as conductor of the Dudley Birder Chorale and artistic director of Music Theatre, which is in its 53rd year.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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