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