The temporary reconfiguration of the proscenium stage into theater-in-the-round is pleasantly disorienting at the Atlantic Theater. But that literal shift in perspective is nothing compared to the head-spinning, giddy thrills and vertiginous goings-on in Caryl Churchill's still-wonderful "Cloud Nine."
When Tommy Tune directed New York's only other production of the British master's era-hopping, gender-morphing, power-savvy tragicomedy in 1981, the casting of women as both men and women and men as both men and women felt giddily ahead of its time. Now, in a production impeccably cast and directed by Churchill specialist James Macdonald, we're aware that a work this clever will always be a step ahead, always pushing us playfully to see human connections that are elusive, important and seriously fun.
The first half takes place in a British colony in Africa during the heyday of Victoria's empire. The last half is in London, 1979, but -- and don't hurt your head trying to imagine this at home -- just 25 years have passed for the characters.
Time and gender manipulations aside, the subjects are power, lust, love and the overlapping colonization of independent urges through history. Now read that again, but smile. The first part is broad satire of supposed English civilization superimposed onto the jungle. Outside, the natives are not happy. The second half is more naturalistic, mostly in a London park, with mothers trying to keep track of children and their own growing selves.
My apologies for having to single out actors from the excellent seven-member company, who all play at least two virtually unrecognizable characters, usually of different sexes and ages. Perhaps Brooke Bloom flips most movingly from the young gay son of the macho British emissary (Clarke Thorell) into an older divorced woman achingly discovering her possibilities.
Chris Perfetti goes effortlessly from the lonely frustrated wife in a hoop skirt to a young gay brother of the badly married Victoria, sensibly played by Lucy Owen, who was outrageously disapproving as the Victorian grandmother. Sean Dugan suggests sinister depths as the outsider in both ages. Gabriel Berry designed the many costumes without a wink of a drag show. All perfect.
WHERE Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St.
INFO $65; 212-352-3101; atlantictheater.org