Thursday night after work, Milton and I met at the Classic Stage Company, an off-Broadway theater to see Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel, Orlando. In my confused youth, the second I whiffed that Woolf had written a gender bending time-traveling semi-biographical story about and for Vita Sackville-West, a woman she had an affair with in the 1920s, fireworks exploded in my head. My friends were drooling over David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman, and Donny Osmond, a trinity of bland teen idols I found about as exciting as a TV test pattern. What excited me was getting my sweaty little mitts on that book about a nobleman who transforms into a noblewoman. The premise blew my adolescent mind. Orlando was my first exposure to Woolf. Since I was barely 13, I found the story completely bewildering. Yet, I managed to read it in its entirety even though it essentially entered one eyeball and exited the other.
Years later, in 1992, filmmaker Sally Potter directed an accessible film version of Orlando featuring Tilda Swinton in the title role, and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I. Billy Zane played Orlando’s male love interest; this was when he had long flowing tresses and looked dashing. Nearly twenty years later, what I most recall from the film was after Orlando changes genders from male to female, she looks straight at the camera and matter-of-factly states, “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” I loved that moment and have been a Tilda Swinton fan ever since.
Sarah Ruhl’s spirited theatrical adaptation makes me want to give reading the novel another try, but more likely, Milton will rent the DVD of the film on Netflix and he’ll let me borrow it. The play is packed with droll wit. Director Rebecca Taichman has overseen a very inventive production. Even though the set, designed by Allen Moyer, is minimalist with a giant mirror suspended over a large swatch of fake grass filling the stage, this use of artifice perfectly personifies nature as a shimmery sheet symbolizes snow and ice. Another element that contributes to this production’s depth is Annie-B Parson’s flowing choreography. The entire ensemble cast deserves a loud shout out. Their energy is vital in bringing this story to vivid life. Francesca Faridany is wonderful as ageless Orlando, in any gender. At one point, she exited the stage to sit on the theater’s steps where she continued to interact with her fellow cast members from afar.
She sat next to me.
I thought, “This is surreal. Orlando is sitting next to me.” My next thought was, “I so hope I don’t sneeze or cough right now.” For once my body functions did not betray me.
David Greenspan, a man of many vocal inflections, is hilarious as Queen Elizabeth I and a cloying duchess who later returns as an equally cloying duke. Tom Nelis is spot on as both a multiple hankie dropping jilted girlfriend and Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, the man Orlando marries, as well as numerous other characters. He can also belt out a song in grand opera style. Howard Overshawn in one moment embodies a maidservant who vows to never remove her wedding ring and just as easily segues into the solicitous captain of a ship. Fluid gender bending is everywhere in this play, with the sole exception of lovely Annika Boras’s Sasha, the ethereal ice skating Russian princess that breaks Orlando’s heart in his male youth.
At the play’s close, Orlando exuberantly declares, “I’m beginning to understand now!”
As does the audience.
Then, the actors took their bows to rapturous applause. Once the cast left the stage, the audience made a stampede for the exit with such aggression, a guy who could have been the body double for Sasquatch stepped on my candy bar, giving me the impression that he and almost everyone else in the room had been trapped in a deep hole in Chile for 69 days, as opposed to two hours in Virginia Woolf’s Wonderland courtesy of Sarah Ruhl.