CAMBRIDGE — Watching a play by the great British dramatist Caryl Churchill is akin to the experience of looking at a Cubist portrait: The general shape of human physiognomy is recognizable, but everything is just a little . . . off.
It’s a disorienting but oddly exhilarating sensation, this upending of assumptions and fragmenting of perspectives, because Churchill has an almost unrivaled gift for mobilizing unreality in the service of a deeper reality.
In her kaleidoscopic “Cloud Nine,’’ presently receiving a first-class production by Nora Theatre Company under the perceptive direction of Lee Mikeska Gardner, that unreality takes the form of an experiment with the mutable properties of time. A century passes between Act One and Act Two of “Cloud Nine,’’ as the action shifts from colonial Africa in the Victorian period to England at the start of the Thatcher era, but its characters age only 25 years. Oh, and the characters who appeared in Act One are played by different actors in Act Two. Confused yet?
The two halves of “Cloud Nine’’ are in conversation with each other, but it is an elliptical, that is to say Churchillian, conversation. Gardner, now ending her fifth season as the Nora’s artistic director, makes sure that we hear that conversation in all its peculiar but captivating rhythms as “Cloud Nine’’ examines varieties of oppression in both eras: political, sexual, cultural, racial, familial. In part, “Cloud Nine’’ constitutes a reckoning with the vanities, delusions, manifest absurdities, and damaging impact of Merry Old England’s colonialism, including the internalization of its values by some of those it oppressed. “The empire is one big family,’’ one character declares breezily in “Cloud Nine.’’ Well, not for everyone.
You almost need a scorecard to keep track of the couplings and uncouplings in this play — sex is bustin’ out all over — but the director and her extraordinary cast do a marvelous job of bringing clarity to the potentially confusing proceedings while also conjuring the enigmatic aura so crucial to making “Cloud Nine’’ work as well as it does. That cast, several of whom portray characters of the opposite gender as stipulated in the script, includes Stephanie Clayman (who so memorably portrayed Ann Landers nearly a decade ago in the Nora’s production of “The Lady With All the Answers’’), Joshua Wolf Coleman, Marge Dunn, Sophorl Ngin, Alexander Platt, Kody Grassett, and Aislinn Brophy.
Act One unfolds in a British colony in Africa in 1880, and focuses on the frequently bizarre interplay among colonial administrator Clive (Clayman); his wife, Betty (Coleman); their two children, Edward (Ngin) and Victoria (a doll); Betty’s mother, Maud (Grassett); the family’s governess, Ellen (Brophy); an explorer, Harry (Platt); an insouciant widow, Mrs. Saunders (Brophy again); and Joshua, an African servant (Dunn).
Churchill’s script dictates that Joshua be played by a white actor to convey the destructive impact of racism on Joshua’s self-image (the playwright wrote that Joshua “wants to be what whites want him to be’’ and does not “value himself as a black.’’). But flickers of rebellion can be detected in Joshua, reflecting the stirrings of revolt intensifying in the region just beyond the veranda whose inhabitants disport themselves beneath a Union Jack (the set design is by Allison Olivia Choat, who also served as assistant director and text and dialect coach). As Joshua, Dunn sustains an impassive, eerie stillness; your gaze is constantly drawn to her as you wonder how long Joshua can maintain his composure without exploding.
Act Two takes place in London in 1979 (the year “Cloud Nine’’ premiered — and the year Margaret Thatcher, no favorite of Churchill’s, became prime minister of England). Now played by Ngin, Victoria is unhappily married to Martin (Coleman), with whom she has a young daughter, Cathy (Brophy). Pretty soon, Victoria is pursuing a lesbian relationship with Lin (Dunn). Edward, now played by Platt, is freely exploring his own gay identity, savoring the freedoms of the 1970s but frustrated by the unfaithful ways of his lover, Gerry (Grassett). Betty, now played by Clayman, is puzzled and unsettled by the shifting currents in the lives of her children.
The versatility of the Nora’s cast is something to behold. Coleman is uncanny and utterly believable as the high-strung, touchingly unsure of herself Betty in Act One, then transitions effortlessly to the imperiously confident Martin in Act Two. As Clive in Act One, Clayman is the embodiment of the hearty, complacent colonialist, and then perfectly captures Betty’s fretful uncertainty in Act Two. But the entire cast excels; this is the quintessential ensemble effort.
In the Boston area over the past year, there have been a couple of top-notch productions of Churchill plays, including the Huntington Theatre Company’s “Top Girls’’ and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s double bill of one-acts, “Universe Rushing Apart: Blue Kettle and Here We Go.’’ Now the Nora’s “Cloud Nine’’ takes its place on that illustrious roster.
Play by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Presented by Nora Theatre Company. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through June 30. Tickets $25-$65, 617-576-9278 ext. 1, www.centralsquaretheater.org