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Caryl Churchill, extraordinary Brit playwright, returns

With all the ongoing, ever-deepening dismay over the paucity of productions of plays by women, I've been thinking a lot about Caryl Churchill. The great (not a word I use easily) English master, still writing and making trouble at 77, has been reinventing theater forms and subverting political niceties for so many decades that, really, discussions about gender statistics feel pasted onto considerations of her body of work.

But here comes "Cloud 9" to make us appreciate her importance -- not just to theater, but to theater by women -- all over again. What a shock and delight this gender-bending epic was in 1981, when Tommy Tune introduced her madly stylish self to New York. The two-part comedy, which ran Off-Broadway for more than two years and has not had a major revival here since, grew out of a late '70s workshop on sexual politics. Men played women. Men played men. Women played men and women in two drastically different periods of history -- Victorian English in colonial Africa and contemporary London.

"What a mind, capable of linking colonial oppression and sexual oppression," marvels James Macdonald, longtime Churchill specialist now directing the hotly anticipated revival that opens Oct. 5 at the Atlantic Theater Company. She "treated them with such invention, freedom and wit in such a provocative, playful way." Then he adds that, for all her original language and strongly felt ideology, "her work is always playful."

We won't be hearing about this from Churchill, of course. For most of her astoundingly prolific career, she has refused to speak publicly about her work. "She doesn't like the sound of her own voice in public," Macdonald explains. "She would rather the work explains itself." Although a 2012 column in the Guardian compared her reclusiveness to that of the late J.D. Salinger, Macdonald laughs at the overstatement. "She is a fantastic collaborator," he insists about the long-married mother of three. "She loves being in rehearsal."

She hasn't been in rehearsals for "Cloud 9" (which the Atlantic is calling "Cloud Nine"), but is expected to be here during previews. Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic, remembers seeing the play in London right after high school. "It blew me away," he remembers. But now, "It feels so prophetic, so ahead of its time."

Until Joseph Papp died in 1991, her plays became a dazzling staple at the Public Theater. There we saw "Top Girls" in 1982 (briefly revived on Broadway in 2008), a time-traveling satirical drama about choices facing British career women in the early years of the Thatcher government.

"Serious Money," first seen here at the Public in 1988 with its British actors, then recast for Broadway with Alec Baldwin and Kate Nelligan, took on the Thatcher economy in rhymed couplets. For "Mad Forest," the devastating documentary-based drama about the 1989 Romanian revolution, Churchill interviewed Romanian students in their country. "The Skriker" (1996) is a horrifying and beautiful drama about the impact of an ancient shape-changing spirit on two English working-class girls.

You see what I mean about trying to pin her down?

In recent years, Churchill's base here has been at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village, where we watched her work get more and more distilled, shorter and more concentrated. I'm thinking about "Far Away," the 2002 apocalyptic little stunner which, in barely an hour, lured us from a country idyll to the global surreality of world war. In 2004, Sam Shepard co-starred in "A Number," a profound and bitterly entertaining drama about cloning. That one was just 65 minutes. But it was verbose compared to "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?," which, four years later, took just 45 minutes to combust a furious two-man allegory about the U.S. and Britain as damaged lovers.

In "Love and Information," our most recent missive from this formidable and wildly unpredictable artist, the distillation continues. Only this time, she gave us almost 60 plays, most lasting just a minute or two or even less, presented by 15 actors portraying more than 100 characters on the same tiled geometric space. The work, again virtuosically directed by Macdonald, was addictive -- as in, you can't stop eating after the first handful or, more accurately, after eavesdropping on snatches of one or six relationships.

So we understand when Macdonald chuckles that "Cloud 9" is "shockingly chatty. It absolutely has the same sensibility , but it's less elliptical, less boiled down. There's just a lot more language to dig into."

There is also, as he puts it, a "big catalog of extraordinary plays" in which to keep digging. I asked him, as I have frequently asked at the end of reviews of her work, whether someone smart (preferably someone right here) shouldn't gather this remarkable but still marginalized playwright into a major retrospective or -- here's a more appealing word -- a festival. He said this was not the first time he had heard such a suggestion, but mentioned the difficulty of casting and other logistics.

In a rare interview, part of a 1987 anthology of talks with women playwrights, Churchill said, "I began writing plays in 1958 and I don't think I knew of any other women playwrights then. Luckily, I didn't think about it." Indeed, that's lucky for us.

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