Fight the Future

Cloud 9 sexes God, queen, and country; The Tomorrow Project creeps in its petty pace

In David Fincher's new film, Fight Club, a bristling psychopath played by Brad Pitt explains his antisocial tendencies to a bristling psychopath played by Edward Norton as such: "We're a generation of men raised by women." The two go on to beat each other silly, but this notion lingers as the common enemy: These men are raging against perceived domestication, represented in the film by fetishized catalog furnishings and emasculating corporate jobs. And though Fight Club seems at first a grim burlesque of the "primal male," it also plays on a raw nerve; for years now, pundits have reported a simmering sexual revolution--a so-called crisis of masculinity. The male animal, they report, is cornered by a new social order in which he is neither alpha nor omega. Given the anxious state of gender relations, it seems timely to revisit Cloud 9, Caryl Churchill's 20-year-old pie in the face of the patriarchy.

At the onset of Timothy Lee's new production of Cloud 9 for Outward Spiral, a motley crew of Victorian archetypes couples in heretofore taboo combinations in a green tissue-paper facsimile of colonial Africa. A prim lady (Jonathan Peterson, looking very ladylike indeed) lusts after an intrepid explorer (Edwin Strout), who in turn lusts after a bitter manservant (Casey Greig) and a pubescent British boy, played with endearing naiveté by Tegan Ashton Cohan. The lady's husband (Dale Pfeilsticker), meanwhile, spends his time hailing God, queen, and empire, while beating the locals and bonking the neighbor.

Amid all the farcical copulation, Churchill makes an intriguing connection between the repressive nature of colonialism and that of marriage. The black manservant, played by a white actor, and the lady, played by a man in drag, each want to be who their white master wants them to be, and can thus never be themselves. Gender may be a matter of chromosomes, Churchill suggests, but sex is a matter of power. As one character rather bluntly puts it, "You can't separate fucking and economics."

Although Cloud 9 was written a decade before Carole Pateman's seminal feminist text, The Sexual Contract, it shares a similar thesis--that the institution of marriage is based upon the same inequitable power exchange as state authority. Churchill's socialist leanings emerge more cogently in the second act, in which the Victorians are transported to the urban jungle of 1970s London (complete with Sex Pistols graffiti scrawled on a brick wall). It is the Age of Aquarius, so the crowd naturally continues its swinging. A punk played by Greig "divorces" his lover (Peterson, as an older incarnation of the sputtering British schoolboy of the first act), and Victoria (Cohan) leaves her manipulative husband (Strout) for the arms of Lin (Elizabeth Dwyer). Although the modern Brits prove considerably less funny than their colonial forebears, Outward Spiral's Cloud 9 does manage to make its point: Boys will love boys and girls will love girls, but without shucking the restrictive codes of patriarchal society, everyone gets screwed just the same.

Though radical feminism has long since come out of the academic closet, our current discord proves the enduring relevance of Churchill's ideas. In the final scene of Fight Club, Norton's psychopath watches a bank of skyscrapers--the phallic shrines of capitalist society--crumble to dust. The image also conjures memories of Oklahoma City and the many blank faces of male rage that have dominated the endgame of the millennium--Churchill's cocks come home to roost.

 

Cashing in on fin-de-siècle anxiety with equal enthusiasm but less dexterity, Steve Busa's The Tomorrow Project is also portentous and pretentious. It would be unproductive to describe the particulars of this jittery "multimedia variety show," except to say that it includes a video survey of art history conducted to ambient music, a turgid manifesto from the 19th-century Italian Futurists dubbed over a Seventies B movie, and enough gratuitous nudity to keep things interesting. Much of the monotonous rhetoric is obviously tongue-in-cheek and many of the visuals are hypnotic. Then again, traffic lights are hypnotic, too, and you needn't pay for the pleasure.

 
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