Historians often acknowledge that Victorian relationships lacked sexual openness. The Bowdoin College student theater company Masque & Gown is disproving that idea this week with the production "Cloud Nine," written by Caryl Churchill and directed by senior Phil Gates.

Taking place in two very different environments, the play explores alternative relationships and gender roles through experimentation and sexual maturation. The members of the cast, who switch roles as often as they switch sexual partners, pull off impressive accents and are convincing in uncomfortable on-stage situations.

The first act takes place in Africa and focuses on the life of a British family during the 19th Century. Initially, the play encapsulates traditional gender roles, with the only oddity being that the wife, Betty, is played by a man, Lawrence Wang '10, and the son, Edward, is played by a woman, Maxime Billick '10.

As the first act progresses, however, it is clear that nothing is what it seems. Scandal emerges with the exposure of multiple affairs. Despite adultery and secrecy, the Victorian norm of the nuclear, heterosexual family is emphasized.

The second act is located in London in 1979, but for the British family, only 25 years have passed. This half of the play focuses on the children of the family: Victoria, played by Francesca Perkins '10, and Edward. Each struggles with sexuality, and Victoria abandons her husband and child for a lesbian relationship.

The central message of the story becomes clear only at the end when the focus shifts to Betty, the mother of the family, original adulteress, and enforcer of domestic normalcy.

"Cloud Nine" tackles controversial themes, and it was a challenge for the actors to perform sexually graphic scenes on stage.

"Right after our first read-through of the script, the cast basically looked at each other with this, 'Oh wow, are we actually going to do this?!' look on our faces," said actor Jessie DePalo '08. "It's an extremely sexy show, and some of the scenes made us all really uncomfortable at first."

"This play forced us all to do things that many of us never thought we would do on stage," said Thomas Blaber '10. "It pushed us past some of our comfort zones as actors, and I think we are all very happy for the opportunity and the finished product of the show."

With such complex material, it was up to Gates to make the show happen at Bowdoin.

"The play is a huge acting challenge: Every actor plays at least two characters, some play three, and a lot of actors play characters of a different gender or ethnicity than themselves," said Gates. "What struck me most about the play was its in-your-face examination of issues related to gender and sexuality, and I wanted to raise these issues with the whole campus."

"Cloud Nine" opens just a week after V-day founder and "Vagina Monologues" writer Eve Ensler spoke at Common Hour (see story below).

With the play drawing on similar ideas and ideological goals as the "Vagina Monologues," Gates could relate to Ensler's conviction that "art should be confusing and complicated."

"This play is absolutely both of those things," said Gates. "It will make you think, it might even make you a little uncomfortable, but it's also just a lot of fun."

"Cloud Nine" will be performed in Pickard Theater tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. $1 tickets can be purchased at the Smith Union Information Desk. Following tonight's show there will be a Q & A session with the cast and director, open to all audience members.