Keith McGill, Victoria Reibel, Scott Davis & Richie Goff in Orlando.
Photo courtesy of Looking for Lilith
Adapted by Sarah Ruhl from the novel by Virginia Woolf
Directed by Kathi E. B. Ellis
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
In the first of three Sarah Ruhl plays being given productions in Louisville in the next few weeks, Looking for Lilith Theatre presents Orlando at the Bellarmine University’s Black Box Theater, an adaptation of the novel by Victoria Woolf published in 1928.
The play charts the picaresque journey through time of a character unique in the literature of the time of the source material. Over the course of 300 years Orlando changes gender, beginning the story as an Elizabethan nobleman and poet but eventually transforming inexplicably into a woman. Orlando’s sense of identity doesn’t necessarily change even after the character transforms, and as a woman, she lives on through history without physically aging, although her range of experiences seem to inform her emotional maturity.
Ruhl’s play successfully translates the complex narrative into a tidy one-act structure with narrative momentum that propels us through the extended biographical plot. The relevance to contemporary society is obvious, yet it is astonishing to consider that the source material dates from more than 80 years ago. The shift in the title characters gender is never explained, so that the focus becomes not on the distinctions between Orlando the man and Orlando the woman but the commonality between the two. For this to come from a writer of Woolf’s generation is revolutionary to say the least, and it has influenced feminist fiction ever since. And while it is formally an historical novel, it might also be counted as the first feminist speculative (science) fiction. If that sounds like a stretch, consider the paired plasticity of time and gender here, some 40 years before it would be found in the writing of Octavia Butler.
With gender issues now a common part of the social discourse, it is easy to conclude that the story has truly now found its moment in time, and Ruhl’s form and language are modern and easy for today’s audience. Not to belie the complexity of the piece for a moment, but the style of the text and Kathi Ellis’s production are both surprisingly engaging for a Classic with a capital “C.” The space in Bellarmine’s Black Box Theatre is kept open, with the action dividing the audience on a diagonal, so that the free and dynamic movement of the five ensemble members is accentuated. They dance, skate, and chase each other with unfettered energy.
Victoria Reibel plays the title character, and her natural wide-eyed ebullience is perfectly cast. Ruhl’s stage directions dictate that, “Orlando is constantly surprising him/herself in the act of performance,” and Reibel embodies this lack of guile so naturally that one might believe it is simply the actor’s own youth coming through, but there is also discipline and a measured deepening of the character as she transcends time. Christie Charron Ruiz’s tall and imperious Sasha is a direct contrast, an early paramour of the young male Orlando who is a mature and commanding presence with a florid Russian accent.
Three men make up a Chorus that narrates the story, and each steps into at least one key character in Orlando’s life. Keith McGill is a very funny Queen Elizabeth I, continuing the deliberate gender-bending casting demanded by the text, but he discovers the humor with an understated comic eloquence and precision of gesture. Richie Goff is Archduchess Harriet, an insistent suitor, and Scott Davis is Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, who Orlando marries later in the history, when she is a woman. Goff and Davis also do good work here, and the three move well as a unit, always Chorus but at times also crucial elements in the staging, such as providing cover for the all-important transformation scene.
There is also some very fine music and sound design from Paul T. Carney, and so much is accomplished through simple costuming, by Lindsay Chamberlin, that still suggest the opulence of the periods through which the story moves that, combined with Christie Lunsford’s spare settings, the overall design concept proves a model of economy that doesn’t sacrifice style.
That this Orlando is something of a romp does not pull the rug out from beneath its long-standing position as an iconoclastic work of literature. The increased accessibility and fluidity of gender presentation form a worthy balance of entertainment and message that makes it a must see in the unofficial Louisville Sarah Ruhl trilogy of productions. For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday will open in Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival on March 8, while Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce, will be presented by The Liminal Playhouse March 24-April 3. That these plays are being produced within a month’s time is a rare treat for Louisville audiences.
February 25, 26, 27, 29, March 3, 4, 5 at 7:30 p.m.
March 5 at 2 p.m.
Looking for Lilith Theatre
At Bellarmine University’s Black Box Theatre
Wyatt Center for the Arts (Norris & Douglass campus entrance)
General Admission: $20
Student, Senior $10
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on ARTxFM/WXOX-LP, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.