ORLANDO OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW
Reviewed by Ron S. Covar
A killer joke (literally). A talking dog. A woman who turned into an almond.
Welcome to the magical world of playwright Sarah Ruhl. With the above mentioned elements as staples of Ruhl’s works, it is not surprising that Ruhl adapted Virginia Woolf’s highly influential roman-a-clef which is simply titled, Orlando. Woolf’s novel complements Ruhl’s genre-bending style with its gender-bending elements. Where else can one find a man who magically transforms into a woman after a weeklong sleep, lives for several centuries and remains young, without sounding like it was penned by Hans Christian Andersen or The Brothers Grimm? That’s the conceit of magic realism. But will Ruhl’s Orlando cast a spell over New York theater audience? Or will it spell disaster for the extraordinarily talented Ruhl’s highly promising playwriting career?
Sarah Ruhl, 36, is a two-time Pulitzer prize finalist, MacArthur Fellowship awardee, Tony
award nominee and recipient of several other playwriting awards and nominations. With such
impressive credentials, expectations are indeed exceedingly high for Classic Stage Company’s
New York premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s play, Orlando. The risks are even higher for Ruhl’s theater
During Orlando’s first preview night of its New York premiere, a visibly anxious Sarah
Ruhl came dressed in an emerald green blouse. Her only fashion accessory was a necklace
with a cylindrical pendant which likely contained her lucky charm: a small pink elephant.
Based on Virginia Woolf’s disguised biography of Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, Ruhl’s
play tells the story of a young man (yes, a man) who transcends gender as she (yes, he is now a
woman) journeys through centuries of wild adventures. Ruhl remains faithful to the novel in its
leap from page to stage, even keeping its narrators. As expected of a play based on a Virginia
Woolf novel, the usual three-act structure espoused by Aristotle does not apply. Thus, the
adapted stage play consists of a series of episodes loosely joined together by Orlando’s literary
All five highly talented actors deliver competent performances although the ensemble’s all-
important chemistry seems to be wanting. One also wishes that actress Francesca Faridany could have breathed more fire into her portrayal of the lead character, Orlando, without necessarily compromising the play’s intent.
Some will probably point out that, in order to emphasize gender difference, Faridany should have
projected more masculine demeanor as the male Orlando but should have also exhibited equally intense femininity as the female Orlando. On the contrary, it appears that Faridany deliberately blurs the difference between her portrayals of the two Orlandos in order to reinforce the play’s theme, and this is highly laudable. In fact, except for the costume, the only difference in the two Orlandos is dramatized in the scene where the female Orlando reacts in her usual manly ways until someone reminds her that she is a woman and should therefore behave like one. This scene as well as Faridany’s ambiguous portrayals of the two Orlandos supports the theme that gender role is not biological but merely imposed by society upon an individual.
Although she has been living as a woman for many years, Orlando later reverts to her manly
outfit which further suggests the ambiguity of gender and that male and female are similar
underneath their clothes. It is also interesting to note that, when the male actors play female
characters (i.e., Orlando’s fiancée, Archduchess, etc.), they deliberately avoid slipping into
women’s clothes (except for Queen Elizabeth) or donning women’s wigs which would have
easily conveyed to the audience that they are playing female characters. This action further
highlights the theme that men and women are basically similar underneath their clothes and
Anita Yavich’s simple costume designs are replete with meanings which further reinforce the
play’s theme. All the three narrators (David Greenspan, Tom Nelis and Howard Overshown)
wear an all-white ensemble. Except for her brown boots, Orlando’s wardrobe also remains
white throughout the play. The only character who is not dressed in white is Orlando’s lover,
Sasha (Annika Boras), whom Yavich dresses in ultra-feminine all-red attire. All actors in
white get-up exhibit gender transformations as they switch into multitude of roles. Boras is the
only actor who maintains her female gender throughout the play. Boras’ unchanged gender
is reinforced by her unchanged red dress which makes her character, Sasha, the obligatory
voice of dissenting opinion. In the world of Woolf’s novel as in Ruhl’s play, the ambiguity
of gender, as manifested by the actors in their neutral all-white outfit, appears to be the norm.
The narrators in this play are never static as they annotate the characters’ actions with their
synchronized movements. Annie-B Parson provides the narrators with delightfully whimsical
choreography which is a joy to watch. The music of Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery
complements Parson’s choreography and their sound design enhances the mood of a scene.
Allen Moyer’s highly functional scenic design is splendid in its stark simplicity: a grassy patch
covering the square stage, a sword, a miniature of Orlando’s big house and three chairs. On the
ceiling is a huge mirror framed with carved wood, providing a blurry image of the actions below
as if to reinforce the message that reality and illusion are inseparable. Perhaps, Moyer could
have further enhanced his elegant stage design by showing some visual representations of the
images which amuse Orlando in the twentieth century, such as the boxlike houses with their
lights betraying the occupants’ privacy, among others.
Moyer’s stage design is made more impressive by Christopher Akerlind’s brilliant (not literally)
lighting which effectively evokes the mood of every scene and clearly distinguishes the different
times of day. It would have also greatly enhanced the production if lighting is employed to
differentiate the passing centuries, in addition to the verbal cues.
Director Rebecca Taichman is a previous Ruhl collaborator (Clean House, Dead Man’s Cell
Phone) and this time, she presents Ruhl’s play in a highly stylized manner. The high point of
Taichman’s staging is the scene where Orlando is revealed to have transformed into a woman.
Taichman renders this scene so beautifully that it serves not only as a dramatic highlight but also a visual delight for the audience. This breathtaking moment alone is worth the trip to the theatre.
Woolf would have been truly proud of this well-polished production as it further strengthens
her novel’s premise that gender roles are dictated by society and not biological. Taichman
encapsulates this message so powerfully by letting her male actors play female roles and vice
versa (except, of course, the unlikeable Sasha who personifies contrary view) with the barest external trappings associated with the actor’s opposite gender. This kind of gender-bending is
impossible to depict in a novel. For this single directorial choice alone, Taichman succeeds in
conveying the play’s theme without uttering a single word.
Ruhl’s brilliant play is certainly not an easy one to bring to the stage and it therefore owes much
of its success to its equally brilliant director, Taichman. In the hands of a less competent director, Ruhl’s play could have easily ended up funny for the wrong reasons. Director Rebecca Taichman pushes all the right buttons and orchestrates every element of Ruhl’s remarkable play with such flair that she leaves the stunned audience visibly enthralled.
Sarah Ruhl is an A-list magician who constantly surprises her audience with her works. Ruhl
scores a major victory in Orlando as she captures the essence of Woolf’s novel so eloquently and manages to entertain at the same time.
During Orlando’s first preview night in New York, Sarah Ruhl could have left her lucky
pink elephant at home and it would not have made any difference in the evening’s outcome.
That’s because Ruhl brought with her to the Classic Stage Company’s performance space that
night something more powerful than the most potent lucky charm: her enormous talent as a
playwright. And that’s more than enough to keep her New York audience under her spell for
almost two hours.
That’s Sarah Ruhl’s magic.
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