Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

Unafraid of Virginia Woolf

Sarah Ruhl adapts Orlando.



Orlando Court Theatre

The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fiber of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver. —Virginia Woolf

In her 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography, Virginia Woolf's nervy pen found a way not only to thread the heart and pierce the liver but twit the privates and tickle the funny bone. The title character traverses two genders and 400 years of European history, but it's Woolf's pungent observations on the tensions between men and women, artists and patrons, and—above all—literature and life that provide the most subversive and inventive elements in the book.

Those who know Woolf primarily from the intense domestic introversion of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse may well be startled at how much fun she has deconstructing the arts of the historian and the biographer here. Getting it all across onstage—particularly given the novel's scant dialogue—is a challenge only partly met by Sarah Ruhl's adaptation, and Ruhl makes some cuts fans of the book may find lamentable. Yet both the script and Jessica Thebus's clever, economical staging for Court Theatre contain many delights. Ruhl's taste for epigrammatic, seemingly arbitrary whimsy becomes more palatable when wedded to Woolf's puckish profundities.

Ruhl's first act focuses on Orlando-as-male, filled with "poetry, romance, folly, youth." After Queen Elizabeth I whisks him off to court, he falls in love with a beautiful Russian temptress named Sasha, who betrays him. Heartbroken, Orlando seeks adventures in Turkey, where he wakes from a days-long sleep transformed into a woman. The second act follows Lady Orlando's attempts to balance "the penalties and privileges of her position" as she negotiates the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Less overtly engaged with sexual politics than Sally Potter's 1992 film version of Orlando, Ruhl's play nonetheless hits the right keys about gender difference and discrimination. When Lady Orlando returns to her English estate after the Turkish sojourn, she faces lawsuits arguing that she's lost her right to the property because "one, she was dead, and therefore could not hold any property whatsoever, and two, that she was a woman, which amounts to much the same thing." (The model for Orlando, Woolf paramour Vita Sackville-West, lost her father's estate because she wasn't a son.)

Amy Carle's voluptuous Orlando banishes thoughts of Tilda Swinton's lithe androgyne in the film, Carle's strong features and voice adding rich threads of ambiguity, particularly once the switch to Orlando's female self has taken place. A chorus of four men embody all the other characters save faithless Sasha, who's played with saucy charm by Erica Elam. Through a series of quick changes, the chorus summon up everyone from Elizabeth I (a drolly pinch-faced Lawrence Grimm) to an archduchess/duke who harbors designs upon Orlando in both gender incarnations. Linda Roethke's costumes add rich visual wit throughout.

The greatest problem with Ruhl's adaptation is that it gives short shrift to the other key element of Orlando's nature—his/her apparent immortality. How does one cope when cut adrift from the normal sorrows and spans of human existence? How does one deal with the inevitable loneliness? Throughout the novel—whose first line of dialogue, tellingly, is "I am alone"—Orlando yearns to be a poet and carries a poem as a talisman. But Ruhl's second act spends so much time focused on Woolf's mockery of conventional love and matrimony that we never fully sense the role of literature as both consolation and foil for Orlando's long, lonely life. "It is a difficult business—this time-keeping," Woolf observed, "nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts." Ruhl's tidy script needs some disorder to put it in touch with the darker streaks in Orlando.

Thebus and her design team find several apt visual metaphors. Collette Pollard's set features a pair of heavily draped canopy beds that suggests the conflict between public and private selves: when all but the gauziest bed-curtains part at the end of act one, revealing Carle's naked, female Orlando, the split between the externalized world of men and the interiority of women comes into immediate focus. Jaymi Lee Smith's lighting palette effectively conjures shades and shadows, particularly in a sequence where Orlando and Sasha ice-skate on the frozen Thames. And Andre Pluess's sound design provides aural signatures for the passing of time—most notably the cacophonous outpouring of bells that signals the turn of each century.

Ruhl and company have taken on a huge task. That it doesn't fully succeed is less of a comment on their talent than a tribute to the fierce, omnivorous pen that created Orlando.

Add a comment