You’re led into a dark room shrouded in black curtains and paved with AstroTurf. The sparkly green lawn is also tacked to the ceiling, which begs the question of whether you’re right-side up. The answer is that maybe you are, but you’re about to be shuffled around.
You find a seat at a long white table dotted with paper plates, napkins and bowls engorged with tangerines. You lift the hat from your chair, which has something like “The Hat of Unstoppable Inspiration” scrolled across it, and decide whether to put it on your head. You wonder if Alice and the Mad Hatter are going to pop out from behind a curtain. Then in walks Elsa Menéndez in a halter-topped maxi dress that seems to change color—from pink to purple to gold—with every rustle. Menéndez turns to you, smiles like she hasn’t seen you in 10 years and is silent for what feels like a very long time. Thus, Cloud Cover, or Conversations With Harry begins.
By now you’ve figured out this isn’t your average theatergoing experience. Menéndez is the sole actor in Cloud Cover, and she is only herself, telling true stories from her life. Although you aren’t asked to perform, you are more than a viewer. This is Menéndez’ home (perhaps it’s even her brain), and you are her guest.
The show begins with a solid five minutes of Menéndez simply smiling and staring at you and your compatriots. It’s incredibly awkward at first, and that may be the point. After the first 60 seconds pass, after Menéndez has met your gaze, made you smile and looked away, the tension diffuses. You accept the silence. You start to wonder if it’s some kind of social experiment, seeing how people react when faced with a radiantly smiling woman in a room full of strangers and nothing but the sound of their fidgety feet. The silence is like a sterilization chamber; you’ve got to go through it to be allowed inside, and you’ve got to be wiped clean of anything toxic. Menéndez is a giant UV ray.
Cloud Cover lives in the realm of optimism. It’s about selflessness and global community and the curve of a piece of fruit. It’s about realizing a full-bodied zest for life.
When she does speak, she says, “This is for you.” And then she offers you food. She brews coffee. She peels a tangerine and hands it to someone in the audience, asking everyone else to rip into the ones in the bowls in front of them. The air smells of tangerine oil and breakfast, and as Menéndez begins to talk as though there had been no silence, she’s backdropped by the gentle sounds of percolation. Later there will be cookies.
Cloud Cover is a collection of patches that ultimately—when pieced together—create a remarkable quilt. Some of those patches are particularly vibrant, such as a tale Menéndez shares about when she was 20 and fell in love with a boy in the Peace Corps, following him to Togo in West Africa. Another is a story about a childhood morning and a stack of pancakes. Then there are smaller pieces, like the songs she sings to you through tin cans that are lowered by strings from the ceiling; or the two tiny figurines she sets on a table; or the red umbrella that’s unfurled to reveal a surprise.
Successfully executing a show like this is tricky and tenuous. Cloud Cover lives in the realm of optimism. It’s about selflessness and global community and the curve of a piece of fruit. It’s about realizing a full-bodied zest for life. It would be easy to turn off the audience by going saccharine. But Cloud Cover doesn’t do that. Menéndez and Kevin R. Elder, the show’s director, have carved out something delightful. The purpose of the show is to make you feel good, and it does. This is due largely to Menéndez’ personality, which seems effortlessly peaceful and happy.
Because the show is comprised of true stories, it’s honest and relatable. You’re attending the theater, but it’s also like going to your friend’s house for coffee and treats. You almost want to walk up to Menéndez after the show and share some of your stories, too. And then you want to be her best friend.
Cloud Cover is a show that taps into all your senses—from the smells and tastes of tangerines to the sound of music in a tin can. It swaddles you and then presents you with gifts. It makes you remember what it’s like to be in love and how it feels to be excited about absolutely everything.