The pleasures of CLOUD 9 are theatrically intense and exhilarating to think about. The Atlantic Theater Company realizes the Caryl Churchill drama with a Shakespearean flair, in the round, its cast as skilled as they come, immersed in the mimetic arts, each playing at least two parts, identities dropped and put on again, like masks or body suits, and then, sometimes, again. The director James Macdonald gives it the feel of a reimagined classic that, if you squint, looks like Renaissance comedy. Arcadia isn’t Arden or Illyria, but colonial Africa, a feminized continent under the ironic patriarchy of a mother country, headed, in the Victorian as in the Elizabethan age, by a woman. But it is Arcadia nonetheless, a veritable carnival of non-traditional casting, in which men play women, and vice versa, the young play the old, and vice versa, a white plays a black, and – well, no: there is no pigment on the stage darker than a ruddy pink.

The script is silent, strictly speaking, on the point, and one is struck, for all its postcolonial upending of constructed categories – race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality – by the implicit whiteness of the cast it calls for. Why no black plays a white is an unavoidable question when you see the play live, as a visual reality, in 2015. Is it that to implicate us in a circumstance where only whites are subjects, a black has to be played by a white in order to to be acknowledged, the reification of a whited world in which the ambiguities of gender and sexuality, even under the sway of Victoria, are less sublimated than those of race? It is also the case that, although an inanimate object – a less than uncanny doll – plays a girl, no girl plays a non-human in return. The equation with race isn’t exact, and in some ways reversed, but it is, to say the least, telling.

The poetics of sex and gender are, in any case, Churchill’s forte. CLOUD 9 stands, with Top Girls, as the exemplar of her art, thematically and formally, a first act populated by historical archetypes and a second by contemporary dramatis personae, a shift from period drama to British social realism. Some of the characters in the second half have the same names as those in the first; they may or may not be the same persons, either older or transmigrated (it seems to me an open question), but clearly a symbolic affinity with their past selves (or namesakes) is suggested. In any case, the play jumps from the Victorian period to 1979, although the persons of the drama think only a quarter century has passed. Figures from the first act pass through near the end of the second, like archetypes of an historical unconscious. Ideology, with all its prejudices, persists beyond the circumstance it arose in, as though these white Brits of the late ‘70s aren’t that much more enlightened than their colonial forbears.

Or perhaps they are less advanced. Sean Dugan, Clark Thorell, Chris Perfetti, Brooke Bloom, Lucy Owen, Izzie Steele and John Sanders – the play’s supple, transformational, and memorable actors – convey a kind of sexual free-for-all among the colonials, as though their Victorian prudery were mainly for show. Good fun trumps good form. They are, after all, in Arden, figures in an imperialist masquerade. Each transgression gives license to another, each identity to the next. And there will be another, and a next. They are, unlike their second act heirs, at least aware of race, perhaps the greatest, and most bogus, mask of all. There is nothing moral in their enactment of it, but the knowledge of it is there – they must, after all, put down rebellions and whitewash the household – as by ’79 it seems not to be.

Race, in the second act, is not just out-of-sight but out-of mind. Sexuality, and the sex associated with it, is, in turn, repressed, furtive and distorted. The free-spirited desire of the first act is guilty and concealed. The woodland is a city park rather than a jungle. Victoria is a common name instead of a queen. One doesn’t blame the people we see in ’79, at the dawn of Thatcher’s Britain, so much as we do the colonials who started it all, but we like them less. Hell is more interesting than heaven, if only for the people who go there. It is as though we leave behind the good things and carry the bad ones forward. CLOUD 9 is about how far they, in 1979, hadn’t come, and however far we, watching them in 2015, haven’t.

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