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Higher Learning

City Lights takes a look at the post-9/11 world from the ivory towers of 'Clouds Hill'

By Marianne Messina

YOU CANNOT accuse Charles Evered's new play, Clouds Hill, of hammering a point home. In a recent City Lights Theatre production, even the ending lets audiences chisel out their own conclusions. As the liberal political science professor Jane (Lisa Mallette) debates and suspects chemistry professor and former Navy man Michael (Kit Wilder), student Ahmad (Kunal Prasad) bounces between them in a three-way game of secret identity hide-and-seek.

That 9/11 has brought this game into our everyday lives is not the revelation in this play. What comes through more than anything is that we humans have enough trouble connecting and communicating when we're from the same culture. Michael and Jane don't trust each other from the start. He accuses her of having a bias against military service. Then they go at it over political correctness: "I prefer to hang a lantern on things," he tells Jane. "Even your prejudices?" she asks. "Especially my prejudices."

Michael may have a point. Later we see Jane fumbling to deconstruct statements she's made to Ahmad, suggesting that, at its worst, political correctness just gives us more ways to avoid saying, "I don't understand." Add to that the misread cues of differing cultures. Ahmad reads the college girls who frequent his fraternity's parties (and spend the night) as "whores." Who knows how he is reading Jane? And she isn't even sure how to read herself: "I probably put something out there," she says. "I just don't know what I'm sending." Michael's conversation makes Ahmad uneasy: "He seems to ask me so many questions with two meanings."

If verbal confusion isn't enough, Evered gives us the possibility that one of these people is a spy or terrorist agent. Set in an environment where ideas are identity (Clouds Hill College), Evered's play is largely polemical, and City Lights' production gives us ideologues sparring on a stark stage. The set consists of three white pieces: a table and the frame of a black board on one-half of the stage (representing a classroom) and a bench on the other half (which we are told is outside overlooking a pond). Scene changes are fluid. The lighting dims on one side and comes up on the other, and the characters cross into the illuminated zone, usually conveying an interval of elapsed time. As a result, the emotional shifts can be swift and dramatic. The brunt of these fall on Mallette, who handles them admirably, though from an audience perspective this shifting requires the nimble mind-set of a multitasker.

As Michael and Jane challenge each other's stances on security and America's role as the dominant world power, they're actually dancing around the question "Can I trust you?"—which gives the play its suspense. Mallette's Jane ranges from smug to vulnerable as Wilder's Michael goes from glib to paranoid. Beneath their respective charm, both characters have a subtext of fear that leads to outbursts along party lines. In a scene with Ahmad (Prasad's Ahmad is somewhat inscrutable throughout the play), Jane apologizes for her "provinciality." Soon she's offering apologies for the whole nation—and in such profusion, the scene borders on parody. (Were the play not directed by its writer, I'd have suggested they play it as such.)

And Michael makes the standard conservative accusation that prisons and universities are prime hiding places for terrorist sleepers because they house "two of the most discontented populations in the country." When this play is through with you, you'll be thinking that all the peace treaties throughout history have been nothing short of major miracles.

Clouds Hill, a City Lights Theater Company production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm through Oct. 16 at City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $20-$25. (408.295.4200)

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From the September 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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