Adapted for the stage by Sarah Ruhl
From the novel by Virginia Woolf
Directed by Jessica Thebus
At the Court Theatre, Chicago
Let me pass
The same I am, ere ancient’st order was,
Or what is now receiv’d.
Virginia Woolf was what we once called a Sapphist, a group who have now taken their names from the island she lived on rather than the individual. Though married, she carried on a passionate affair with an aristocratic bon vivant, Vita Sackville-West, and was inspired to write a fanciful roman à clef about the her. The resulting novel, Orlando: A Biography turned into her best-selling work to date, and escaped the anti-homosexual censors because Orlando began life as a man.
Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation thereof has on the stage the feel of a Shakespearean romance: time and distance are travelled freely, in little space, and without much regard. The whimsy is so thick one could use it as a spread for bread. And it is crafted so cleverly as to delight without compunction. Orlando, played by Amy J. Carle, we first see in Elizabethan England as a young boy. The queen takes a fancy to him, and brings him to her court, where he eventually meets Sasha, a Russian princess, and they fall in love. She disappears back to Russia, and Orlando is left alone. He eventually asks King James if he can go to Constantinople, during which time, after a long slumber, he wakes up a girl. The now-female Orlando wishes to return to England, and has trouble playing his – or rather her new role as passive, chaste objet du désir. The Victorian era gives her a new sense of happiness, but also a driving need to find a husband, which she does. At which point, aged 36, she arrives in the 20th century.
It is, indeed, a fanciful romance, and the staging matches the story. Beyond the two actors mentioned above, the players consist only of a four-man chorus (Thomas J. Cox, Adrian Danzig, Kevin Douglas and Lawrence Grimm) who play various parts throughout the ages. There are only minimal sets: two side-tables on wheels, as faux-dressing rooms, two beds, some chandeliers and bare light bulbs. And so the chorus, using similarly minimalistic costumes and makeup, and the lighting help set the stage; each actor not only plays their roles, but also acts as narrator.
Although difficult to describe, it is a delight to see: the lighting, costumes, and sets are all masterful, with the costumes, designed by Linda Roethke, pleasing the eye especially, not only for their beauty, but for their cleverness and simplicity, a single article change sometimes symbolizing an entirely different era. The actors are so in-sync that not a beat was missed, even when they had rapid-fire single-word lines in quick succession. The choreography (which is not exactly correct, as there was no dancing, per se, but “movement” does not do the movements on stage justice) is tight and remarkable for its ingenuity. And every single actor on stage presents a tour de force.
Some audience members may be turned off by the staging: realism is utterly absent. But that is part of the charm of this piece – and after all, a story about a man who lives for hundreds of years, inhabiting different roles and who becomes a woman is hardly realistic; why shouldn’t the staging reflect that? By the same token, I’m really not sure what to call this style: it is too tame to be called “avant garde” – it should no longer be considered a vanguard piece. Perhaps one should only say that the fancy and whimsy of the story are reflected palpably in the staging. And with that, be done.
Orlando is an utterly agreeable piece of theatre that anyone who enjoys even slightly non-traditional pieces should be thrilled to witness.
Reviewed on 3.19.11
At the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago; call 773.753.4472; tickets $30-$60; performances Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30; run time is 2 hours; through April 10.