Having just seen Wellesley Summer Theatre’s splendid ORLANDO (playing through Feb. 2nd), I’m convinced that playwright Sarah Ruhl is the perfect writer to give Virginia Woolf’s novel a life on the stage. (You also may want to find Sally Porter’s opulent 1993 film with Tilda Swinton as ORLANDO and the late, great Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth. It’s an extraordinary movie.)
Both Woolf and Ruhl commit fully to fantasy in their writing. You might say that without Woolf’s experimentation and innovative contributions to modern literature, Ruhl’s celebrated magical realism would not be possible. Nora Hussey helms WST’s vivid production of one poet’s “historical” adventure (and transformation) over the centuries. Woolf deliberately resolved to reduce plot and story in favor of characters that “experience” life for themselves. Her Orlando explores and experiences the social and cultural mores of the time, commenting (delightfully) on the “spirit of the age.”
Except for the character of Orlando, the actors in director Nora Hussey’s deft production are universal players in a masque, who set a scene and change character as quickly as they change costumes. Their wry musings as a cheeky Greek chorus, like the stone chorus in Ruhl’s EURIDICE, are a part of the play’s many pleasures.
David Towlun’s enormous mirrors at either end of the stage are the sole set pieces, reminding us that Orlando is searching for his true self, not just a reflection of the time. (And, of course, we know that a reflection in a mirror reverses itself.) Woolf, the quintessential feminist, creates a male character (who despite his sex can think and feel with an acute awareness) who then, surprise, surprise, becomes a woman. No explanation. You just have to accept the reversal.
Orlando simply awakens to find himself a woman—but the feminine Orlando is not content to be the “obedient, chaste” creature society would like her to be. Her rebellion makes the Act II Orlando much more compelling than the male version …although Catherine LeClair’s adolescent passion is plenty amusing as he pines for the Russian Princess (a charming Elizabeth Yancey). Their romp under a blanket of fur is hilarious.
Orlando’s adventures take him all over the world and through three centuries, from the Elizabethan to the Jazz age, looking for an “other” self. Woolf fashioned Orlando after her longtime love, the poet Vita Sackville-West, who descended from a line of poets, all male until the literary gene switched gender in the twentieth century, from male to female! Hah!
LeClair glows from within as the female Orlando, enjoying her new body, happily chiding the male establishment for its strictures. Everyone glows for heavens sake, in Graham Edmundson’s gorgeous, orangey, Elizabethan lighting and everyone moves with grace to Sophori Ngin’s choreography.
Lovely performances abound, from John Davin’s delicious turn as the entitled Queen Elizabeth I (in a regal gown by Emily Woods Hogue); to Woody Gaul as the outlandish Romanian Archduchess (in a garish gown, on purpose) and as her alter ego, the dashing Archduke; to the Shakespeareans, John Kinsherf and Victoria George, in a “non-traditional” reversal of the Othello and Desdemona death scene.
And I haven’t even credited the hysterical fly, the yapping dog, the maids or the washerwomen, all exquisitely drawn. Don’t miss this lively rendering of Woolf’s masterpiece.