Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Orlando, Classic Stage Company

Francesca Faridany and Annika Boras (photo, Joan Marcus)

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a flight of gender fantasy written as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West who, along with her husband, Leonard Woolf, anchored Woolf’s emotional and amorous life. Orlando is something of a feminist classic, the story of a young nobleman who inexplicably becomes a woman half-way through a life that extends across hundreds of years.

The book provides a happy complement to Woolf’s oeuvre, demonstrating the imaginative possibilities of believing that gender really is mutable and malleable, a plaything of culture rather than a true expression of body or soul. Sally Potter re-imagined Orlando in a 1992 film version that starred Tilda Swinton, she of sharp cheekbones, flaming red hair, and angular body, whose androgynous appearance and avant-garde art pedigree let her slip easily into the role.

In a program note for this Classic Stage Company production, playwright Sarah Ruhl calls Orlando “part novel, part fabulation, part biography, part theatrical escapade, part poetry.” Ruhl adapts it into a sweetly theatrical love letter to love and life itself, with a great deal of affection for story-telling and performance thrown in along the way.

With Rebecca Taichman’s inventive direction, Annie-B Parson’s subtle, gilding choreography, and exuberant performances, especially by Francesca Faridany in the title role, Orlando becomes by turns wistful, lustful, wondering, and affirming as a tale of a man/woman who wants to love, to live, and especially and finally, to write.

Woolf’s words provide the text Ruhl creates, framing Orlando’s story reader’s theatre-style. Three men dressed in white pants, vaguely stylized white jackets, and undershirts (by Anita Yavich, whose costume design helps along nicely the production’s fluid representations of gender) form the chorus of narrators who play men’s and women’s roles as the story proceeds.

Tom Nelis and Howard Overshown are wonderful as Russian sailors, female parlor maids, ruffled attendants to the queen, and various other incidental characters with whom Orlando interacts in her various guises. Along with assisting the story telling, David Greenspan plays the Queen—an unsurprising but humorous bit of casting that lets a queen play a queen—as a fusty but kind old woman taken enough with the young Orlando to bring him to her court as her consort.

The ensembles’ changing roles are marked with bits of costume or none at all as, without much fanfare, they change their voices and their gender performances. Greenspan’s queen dons a royal costume and neck ruff that descends from the flies like an oversized paper doll dress. He hangs it from his shoulders and buckles it around his waist, extending his arms to either side in imperial gestures required by the circumference of his outfit.

These meta-theatrical flourishes demonstrate not just the potential of theatre to transform character, but the surface enactments of gender and power, and the ways in which our culturally and historically situated costumes often do contour our movements and inflections.

Greenspan’s trademark mugging works appropriately here to underline what Woolf and Ruhl already present as a gentle satire of queenly gender. That he carries his flamboyant queerness into his narration and his other characters also productively emphasizes sexuality and gender fluidity.

Likewise, Nelis and Overshown move freely through a range of gendered behavior, and while their white outfits might aim toward a “neutral” baseline, Taichman and the actors are in fact careful not to suggest that a performance could be fashioned in which gender isn’t present. Happily, then, this Orlando doesn’t present “non-gender” as some sort of desirable utopia, but suggests instead that the joy comes from how we might continually reinvent our gendered performances.

Faridany, as Orlando, achieves the same non-prescriptive gender goal. Yavich dresses her, too, in white, with slim riding pants and a flowing over-shirt not exactly hiding her body so much as muting its contours. The Queen and Orlando’s lovers comment on his shapely legs, already suggesting something of female allure in his boy’s body.

The brown suede knee-high boots Orlando wears throughout—even under the rustling dress that cloaks her after her transformation into femaleness in the second act—ground him/her in action or its possibility, and makes him appear both mobile and somehow soft. They allow Faridany to stay grounded but quick, and let her sink easily into the grass Orlando so wants to describe through poetry (but can only, inadequately, humorously, repeatedly call “green”).

Throwing herself whole-heartedly into Orlando’s wonderings and wanderings, Faridany is a pleasure to watch, from Orlando’s earliest boyish musings and yearnings to the more mature yet still happily wide-eyed reflections of her middle years as a woman. Faridany’s voice brings a deep, resonant quality to Woolf’s language, and her British accent seems to authorize the story without making it sound pretentious or distanced. The narrative, after all, moves from the 17th century to the present, as the ensemble and Orlando announce the passage of moments in quick succession.

All five actors beautifully command the vocal and physical rigors that Ruhl and Taichman construct for the story, as together, they create a world that both transforms and stays the same over time. When Orlando leaves his nobleman’s home for the Queen’s court and winter descends, the three men cover the green stage turf with a shimmering white cloth.

Suddenly, the scene transforms into snowy ice on which Orlando sees Sasha, the woman who will become his true love, skating by in her red velvet coat and round Russian hat. Parsons choreographs the skating like a dance, and subtle effects deliver the sound of steel scratching against ice.

Annika Boras plays Sasha, the only character and actor whose gender stays constant throughout. Yet Sasha, too, wears trousers under her velvet robe, and her scrappy femininity is hardly quiescent. Using a broad Russian accent for laughs, Boras is all vitality and lust, falling into Orlando’s arms and practically devouring him as they gaze into one another’s eyes.

Boras and Faridany are terrific together as the lovers, in performances physically precise and exuberant and emotionally sweet and full. Taichman directs them to be in constant contact, arms entwined or draped around each other’s shoulders, eyes locked, hands cupping one another’s necks and in each other’s hair, lips crushed together—this is love as an explosion of erotic energy, full of agency and barely contained desire.

But Sasha betrays Orlando, her wily, hungry sexuality overcoming any impulse toward fidelity. First she flirts with a Russian sailor who reminds her of home. Then Sasha fails to arrive at the rendezvous Orlando has planned so that they can run away together, escaping the marriage of propriety to which Orlando is already engaged. Faridany’s response to Sasha’s betrayal of Orlando is physical as well as emotional; she climbs a ladder at the stage wall to look for Sasha, crying out in agony when the woman is nowhere to be found.

And then Orlando falls into a deep sleep, laying his head on huge pillows that the ensemble brings to cushion his fall into unconsciousness. They hide the hero with another shimmering white cloth large enough to cover the whole stage, while they describe Orlando’s refusal to be awakened. When he finally opens his eyes and stands, letting the silky sheet fall from his loins, Faridany is naked, stretching her limbs in light that looks like the sun. The ensemble gazes at Orlando’s new form in wonder before wrapping her back up in the sheet and closing the first act.

This moment in Orlando offers quick visual evidence of the character’s transformation. Flashes of full-frontal female nakedness like this are sometimes uncomfortable. The performer’s vulnerability becomes palpable, and the symbolism of the moment can be heavy and obvious. Kathleen Chalfant’s brief, triumphant nudity at the end of Wit comes to mind, as the professor who’s died of cancer achieves a spiritual, if not physical, transcendence in death.

But in Orlando, Taichman and Faridany (and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, who floods the moment with the glow of a brand new morning) use nudity to illustrate Orlando’s turn in the road rather than a “rebirth”—that is, Orlando/Faridany stays relatively the same, even if her apparatus has miraculously shifted.

The contemporary resonances of the story solidify in the second act. Orlando, now weighed down with the floor-length, wide dresses of Victorian womanhood, finds herself responded to through the lens of her new femininity, rather than addressed as the still independent, clamoring subject beneath. She’s first told that she can’t own property as a woman; Faridany’s eye-rolling response carries the feminist critique.

Orlando tries on her new physical exterior while she resists the constraints femininity seems to bring, so that the character does seem to have simply changed his clothes and not really his affections. She marries a man—just as Woolf did—but Sasha continues to play in her emotional imagination as the unattainable erotic object on whom Orlando’s affections fix.

When the “present” dawns, the ensemble peels away Orlando’s dress to reveal the pants and tunic in which she began her journey, and her body relaxes back into the grounded, easy physicality of her younger male self, even though she’s now a 36-year-old woman. She moves through time and cultural mores, weathering them all with a wry knowingness, and preserving the freedom of spirit and soul that lets her engage with such eagerness and ease across each era.

Orlando wants nothing more than to write. In fact, Ruhl’s note explains that Woolf suffered from a terrible writer’s block before she wrote Orlando. The program quotes Woolf’s 1927 letter: “Yesterday morning I was in despair . . . I couldn’t screw a word from me; and at last dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: A Biography. No sooner had I done this than my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas. I wrote rapidly . . .”

The production, too, ends with Orlando him/herself settling back down into her beloved green grass, and finally constructing the well-turned sentences that have eluded her throughout. Taichman has Faridany scrawling happily on the ground, creating her story(ies) as the play—a valentine to theatricality and perpetual self-recreation—ends.

Lovely images as well as emotions support the tremendous heart in this production. The CSC space is arranged in a modified thrust, with the audience surrounding the playing space on three sides and actors entering and exiting through the aisles, which creates the warm intimacy on which the performances capitalize.

Orlando’s estate is represented by a doll’s house of sorts, its windows alight with a soft glow. The sprawling mansion is portable; Nelis carries it across the length of his arm to represent Orlando’s early travels, and then places it in a high ledge on the upstage wall, where it glimmers intermittently, a beacon of home to which Orlando eventually returns.

A canted, gilded mirror hangs over the green square that frames that action, suggesting the funhouse of time, action, and performance in which Orlando’s antics play out. The richly green artificial grass that carpets the stage floor lets the actors’ costumes stand out in sharp relief against its backdrop, and evokes a pastoral setting for the production’s playful confrontation with cultural constraint.

Orlando’s production design evokes the binaries—nature/culture, male/female, inside/outside—that the performance challenges so good-naturedly. The ensemble moves simple wooden chairs around the outside of the square, perching on them to watch, comment, or move the narration along, creating suggestions of place and movement.

Taichman keeps the theatricality simple, so that the performers’ bodies and voices carry the story’s verve and wonder. With a light touch, and an unerring, warm feel for humor and affection, she brings Ruhl’s adaptation of Woolf’s text alive. Orlando’s gender performances—played so fearlessly, commandingly, and compellingly by Faridany—become the stuff of possibility and potential.

Orlando isn’t a romance about lovers whose stars are crossed by gender confusion, but an embodiment of Woolf’s text, a love letter to our human capacity to love, perhaps outside the cultural dictates of gender. The production turns Woolf’s story into a wistful, funny, moving meditation on what it means to long, to love, to be alive, and to construct yourself not through gender—which here is just something to pass into and out of—but through words and the transformative power of the stage.

The Feminist Spectator

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Hunger Games

I seem to be about 10 steps behind the zeitgeist, coming to the Larsson trilogy and now Suzanne Collins’ young adult dystopian novels later than most. I stumbled onto The Hunger Games, the first in the series, just as Mockingjay, the final installment, was making its debut, and I’m now almost through the second book, Catching Fire. But what a wild ride. Not since the Harry Potter series and Carl Hiassen’s eco-mystery-satires have I been so gripped by stories written for young people.

The Hunger Games trilogy stars its narrator, Katniss, the sixteen-year-old girl who is thrust into heroism by offering herself as a substitute for her 12-year-old sister, Prim, in the brutal reaping that populates the barbaric Hunger Games of the dystopian nation of Panem. The country is divided into twelve districts, each of which bears responsibility for a certain sector of production: agriculture, industrial, mining, etc. The Capitol controls these districts, employing Peacekeepers to keep the population in line, while its own residents revel outlandishly in their safety and privilege.

People in the districts constantly face starvation and physical deprivation, as their food is strictly rationed and their subsistence-level existences require scraping out the most meager of livings. In the Capitol, residents cavort freely and excessively, painting their skin in vibrant colors, wearing outlandish wigs and adornments and outfits of luxurious and loud materials, and bingeing and purging so that they can consume huge feasts of rich food. The division between the haves and have-nots couldn’t be more sharply drawn.

Katniss’s father was a miner who died with other men in an explosion in her own District 12, leaving her to care for her severely depressed and withdrawn mother and Prim. The scrappy Katniss uses what her father taught her about hunting—illegally, outside the electrified fence that surrounds the district—to feed her family and to supply squirrel, rabbit, and wild turkey meat to the Hob, the center of the black market exchange where Katniss trades her game for other necessities.

Katniss hunts with her friend Gale, a taciturn but determined young man who dreams of escape, and whose beautifully set snares entrap as much food as Katniss can fell with the bow and arrow she wields like an Olympic archer. They risk death to provide for their families, since hunting outside the boundaries of their district is forbidden. But the Peacekeepers of District 12 are lax, participating in its underground trade and turning a blind eye to their community’s illegal activities. In other districts, such violations are punished with death.

The Capitol’s cruelest mode of control is the annual Hunger Games, staged to remind citizens of the costs of rebelling against the government’s control. Every year, two “tributes” from each of the nation’s twelve districts are brought to a pre-constructed arena where they battle to the death until only one of them remains alive and is declared the victor.

The tributes are young people from each district, one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen, who are selected in the “reaping,” an annual, public lottery in which the unlucky kids’ names are read aloud. Twenty-four young people travel to the Capitol, where they prepare to compete.

When Katniss’s sweet sister Prim is selected in the reaping that begins The Hunger Games, Katniss immediately, frantically offers herself as Prim’s substitute, an allowed but almost unheard of gesture of nobility and selflessness. Implicitly sacrificing her life for her sister’s, Katniss is whisked off into a world driven by the Capitol’s illusion-making machinery, which orchestrates every bit of the pre-Games festivity and eventually, the Games themselves.
Peeta, the son of District 12’s baker, is selected as its male tribute, Katniss’s partner but ultimately just another of her enemies in the Hunger Games.

The two are shepherded through their preparatory sessions by the drunken Haymitch, the only former tribute from their district to have won the Games, and by Effie Trinket, the affected martinet assigned by the Capitol, who makes sure they adhere to their schedule. Effie sees Katniss and Peeta mostly as her meal ticket, as she stands to benefit professionally should one of them win the Games.

The four travel by train through Panem to the Capitol, where their scarred and worn bodies are buffed and polished for presentation to the cameras that track their training and their performance in the Games. Their abilities are assessed as their bodies are strengthened, and they’re taught additional skills that will at least make them viable competitors, if not victors.

Katniss and Peeta are fattened up like calves on their way to the slaughter. The meals they’re served on the train and in the training center are so rich they can barely keep them down. The ministrations of their “teams”—make-up artists, costume designers, performance consultants, along with Haymitch and Effie—are calculated to make them as appealing as possible to the viewers who watch their interviews and see every moment of their progress toward the competition. Eventually, every moment of the Games themselves is televised live.

By presenting the Hunger Games as the Capitol’s cruel entertainment for Panem’s citizens, Collins skillfully critiques the contemporary media industry for how it constructs a reality that serves the powerful and manipulates the masses through carefully controlled scripts and images.

The tributes’ appeal, after all, is part of what will keep them alive. As the Games progress, viewers who can raise the necessary funds are able to send support to contestants, which enhances their chances of surviving and even winning the cruel struggle. A contestant with no appeal to spectators risks being left on his or her own during the Games, while one for whom the audience cheers could potentially receive additional food, medicine, or weapons that will increase his or her chances of staying alive.

And so Katniss and Peeta are molded into a narrative with clear sex appeal. In their first public appearance, the couple is presented together in a chariot, with their costumes set on fire, a captivating image that becomes Katniss’s motif throughout the pre-Games events. Her master stylist, Cinna, has a talent for how to sell his new client, and his insights and empathy extends into their personal relationship, as he becomes one of the few on her team whom Katniss really trusts.

The melancholy of these relationships is evident from the start, as Katniss and Peeta’s team prepares them to compete, while everyone understands the odds against their winning. The two young people are really being prepared to die.

[Spoiler alert.]

In between bouts of falling down drunkenness, their mentor Haymitch devises a love story for the two District 12 tributes that encourages Panem’s citizens to invest in Katniss and Peeta’s survival. The strategy works, as the romance captures the viewers’ attentions and their emotions. But unbeknownst to Katniss, Peeta truly is in love with her, while she burns something of a flame for Gale, whom she knows is caring for the family she left behind at home. Thrown together in extreme circumstances, though, Katniss and Peeta develop an intimate relationship that Katniss, too, begins to believe is real.

To Collins’ credit, though, The Hunger Games can hardly be called a tween romance novel, even of the Gothic sort that drives the Twilight saga. Although she has feelings for Gale and eventually Peeta, Katniss doesn’t want to marry, because she knows any child she’d bear would become part of the machinery of reaping and tributes and the brutal, gladiatorial Games that organize every citizen’s life and presage their deaths.

The seeds of her resistance to the Capitol’s fascism appear in her refusal to believe in the gendered narrative of giddy romance her handlers insist she perform. In her portrait of Katniss, Collins demonstrates that gender is indeed a performance. The independent, athletic, wily young woman has to be coached in the giggly, submissive, head-over-heels-in-love, clinging femininity that she performs to persuade viewers that she’s in love with Peeta.

The Hunger Games trilogy crosses 1984’s sci-fi dystopia with mythic stories of more typically male heroism. Collins twists the gender expectations, since Katniss is the hero who undergoes a series of trials and obstacles to arrive at her goal. Collins creates an Orwellian world in which invisible cameras are always watching and broadcasting as the Games begin and proceed.

As Katniss and Peeta enter the arena and begin their desperate attempt to survive, the brutality of the Games is sharpened by their knowledge that their every move is scrutinized by the viewing nation. Watching the Games is mandatory, since through this annual rite, the Capitol secures its power over the districts. Even at night, securing herself to branches high in the trees she climbs for safety, Katniss can’t let down her guard.

Collins propels us through the Games at a breathless pace. The narrative, told in Katniss’s voice, is unadorned, grim and determined, as we read about Katniss strategizing first toward her own survival. The Gamekeepers constantly manipulate the rules, sending new trials and tribulations, from fire to water to “muttations,” reengineered mutant beasts determined to savagely kill off the tributes. When they decide that for the first time ever, two tributes from the same district will be allowed to win the Games together, Katniss and Peeta join forces to overcome their enemies.

Throughout the violent proceedings, Katniss’s inventive, clever ideas keep her and Peeta alive. It’s Katniss who keeps Peeta from certain death, after he’s attacked and lies bleeding in the mud by a stream. It’s Katniss who outsmarts the “Career” tributes, those who’ve been bred for these competitions and band together to kill off the others before competing with one another to become the last to survive.

When the evil Gamekeepers decide to change the rules back at the end, insisting that only one tribute be allowed to win, it’s Katniss who offers poisonous berries to Peeta, intent on staging a joint suicide that will secure their mythology as star-crossed lovers and that would leave the Capitol with no winner of the Games at all.

That final act, which keeps Katniss and Peeta alive and heralded as the Games’ dual winners and the heroine and hero of Panem, brands Katniss a rebel, as she’s dared to flout the Capitol’s authority. When the trilogy’s second book, Catching Fire, opens, she pays the price for her daring when she’s visited in her new, luxurious, well-provisioned home—the gift to all winners of the Games—by President Snow, the reptilian leader of Panem, whose breath smells like roses and blood.

Snow tells Katniss that he knows her relationship to Peeta is only a performance and that her rebellious joint suicide attempt must be defanged by her future fidelity to the script of their headlong tumble into love and, he insists, marriage. Katniss pleads that she threatened to eat the poison berries because she was hopelessly in love; Snow knows her plan was a ploy to keep both herself and Peeta alive. Now, he demands reparations, and if he’s not happy, he threatens to kill Gale and Katniss’s mother and Prim.

I’m racing through Catching Fire, propelled by a plot that keeps twisting and turning, and by word of the hopeful rebellions growing in the other districts, for which Katniss reluctantly begins to see she must stand as a symbol throughout the nation. Panem's citizens, it seems, aren't quite as convinced as they might be by the Capitol media's manipulations, and are beginning to see beneath the charades presented to further its own power and ideology.

Katniss is the perfect leader for such a rebellion, a girl heroine for the ages—tough, smart, and cunning, with her emotions roiling but in check, so that she can be responsible to those she loves and insure their common survival.

The Feminist Spectator