Cloud 9 defunkt theater at the Back Door, 4319 SE Hawthorne, 993-9062, Thurs-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm, through October 11, $8-15
In a genre like political theater, that aims to explode outmoded ideas, is an older play that responded to long-ago political climes ultimately a waste of time? Usually yes, and so it takes a thoughtful, truly inspired group like defunkt theatre, that can not only revive a stale, didactic work like Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9, but also point out how chillingly relevant the material remains. And they also make it broadly entertaining.

Following the personal entanglements of a Victorian-era British family, Cloud 9 pairs colonialism with sexual repression. Like a coup de tat, it results in a messy, violent explosion of impulse and character assassination. An undertone of tension never truly goes away, spanning years and years of this family's miserable existence.

But the play's clearest message is that gender roles are ridiculously arbitrary. Women play men's roles and vice versa with no attempt at masking. The disturbingly boyish actress, kollodi (lowercase spelling intentional), plays the youngest son, Edward, a character frequently chastised for playing with dolls--a traditionally "female" activity. Such gender bending results in many stereotype-challenging configurations, like the relationship between Edward and Harry, a rakish explorer. At first glance, their dynamic is a manly, father figure situation. It is in fact sexual, but the gender experimentation makes it easier for the audience to stomach and assess.

As the matronly Betty, the fantastic James Moore embodies the feminine mystique without devolving into parody or gimmicks. His balancing act helps prove the essential truth of these characters: they all behave so badly because they yearn so badly for real human contact.

With so much to say, almost every line of Churchill's script is pointed. This grows quite tiresome, but maybe frustration at these characters' unending cycles of bad choices is the point. Nevertheless, any message inherent in Cloud 9 has been drilled into your head halfway through the first act. The rest is just relentless reinforcement. BRIAN BOONE