CLOUD 9, About Face Theatre. A sturdy vehicle for a supple cast, Caryl Churchill's 1979 gender-bending play is its own two-act rotating repertory. Kyle Hall's cast successfully rises to its occasions.

The first act, set at the apogee of the British Empire, depicts a patriarchal, colonialist, racist, misogynist Victorian family. Since divorce is forbidden, adultery flourishes, and since only certain forms of heterosexuality are approved, pedophilia, miscegenation, and homosexuality come in through the back door. The second act is set a century later, but the survivors have aged only 25 years. These ex-Victorians enjoy a broader gender menu--women's liberation, gay sex, lesbian love--but, wisely, Churchill implies that freedom brings new troubles and stereotypes. The tension between new institutions and old longings means that commitment still vies with experimentation.

The charm of this mercurial comedy is the way the contemporary characters haunt their Victorian precursors. That happens most poignantly when Betty (Pat Kane), the matriarch who's rediscovered the pleasures of touching herself, embraces her stricter yet younger self (Derek Hasenstab): what seems a stylized act of self-love becomes an act of forgiveness. Though About Face's first act is too cartoony to set up the darker contemporary scenes, the second act pays off with rich performances. Especially touching are Erik Lochtefeld's winsome Edward, who'd like to be a wife to the right husband, and Jennifer Avery as his calmly caring lesbian sister.

--Lawrence Bommer

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