Orlando – Wit and Wisdom Are Alive and Well on Theatre Row

Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, her most popular, was written for lover, Vita Sackville West. its noble protagonist changes from man to woman over centuries, adapting, commenting, never quite habituating. Woolf wrote “I have written this book quicker than any; & it is all a joke; & yet gay & quick reading I think; a writer’s holiday.” Director Will Davis observes it’s “about fumbling towards self and the divine chaotic nature of that.” This is NOT a polemic. It’s smart and fun.

Nathan Lee Graham (the Queen)

England; The reign of Elizabeth I (Nathan Lee Graham – a splendiferous, imperious queen) At 17, Orlando (Taylor Mac) is a comely boy with, ladies keep telling him, especially attractive legs The romantic hero’s sole desire is to become a poet. We hear a snippet. It’s awful. On a visit, her majesty takes to the teenager inviting him to court as – despite his youth – her treasurer and steward, in fact, a kind of pretty pet. They become, as much as royalty can, companions. Orlando is devoted. Court ladies vie to marry him. Elimination is succinct and ludicrous. He’s passively engaged.

Anything with which actor, playwright, performance artist, director, producer, singer-songwriter, actor Taylor Mac/Judy chooses to be involved is sure to be worth seeing. The multi-talented, award and grant winning artist is one of our most creative, ever exploring, challenging, provoking, tickling. She’s marvelous here, in turn vaudevillian and serious. Emotional and physical acting are fully inhabited and character specific. Innocence is credible, revelation occurs visibly. A joyous performance.

Taylor Mac and Janice Amaya

Skating on the frozen Thames, Orlando is struck dumb by another skater. A boy? A girl? “No boy ever had a mouth like that.” Sasha is a headstrong, libidinous Russian princess. (Janice Amaya- great accent, seductive, implicitly raised eyebrow.) The fiancé is forgotten in a rush of hot blood. Orlando and Sasha couple and plan. The hero learns about faithlessness. “Time passed strangely and a new century began.” (The Thames actually froze several times; this time for six weeks in 1608.)

Once again the protagonist takes pen to paper beneath a familiar oak tree. He’s approached by an archduchess with an eye for beauty. She has a lunatic laugh, a riding crop, and an upside-down bowl headdress. (Lisa Kron has infectious fun with the role.) “It was not love but lust that landed on his shoulder.” Repetition causes boredom. Orlando requests an ambassadorial post and is sent to Constantinople. One night he goes to bed only to wake six days later as a woman. “Their face remained the same.” At 30, she boards a ship to return home.

Lisa Kron, Jo Lampert, Taylor Mac, TL Thompson

“Up to this moment she’d scarcely given her sex a thought.” When the captain flirts, she learns to adjust her reactions as appropriate to the female gender. Suddenly presenting as obedient and chaste is a lesson. To pour tea as a man liked it is an effort. “Now a thousand mysteries became clear to her.” Restrictions and privileges of both sexes are fantastically sketched.

An archduke pursues the nascent woman (Lisa Kron, Romanian accent and frustrated bravura). Getting rid of him is a comedy of manners. Time passes. It’s the 19th Century. Orlando becomes conscious of a tingling on her ring finger and knows it’s time to marry. The dashing Marmaduke arrives as if sent for. (Rad Pereira with swashbuckling sweep.) It’s a love match, but he’s a sailor and so comes and goes. In the 20thCentury, “the sky seems made of metal.” Orlando has a motorcar. She’s still trying to compose a magnum opus. “As she wrote, the war continued…” It’s easy to imagine the protagonist continuing on.

TL Thompson, Lisa Kron, Taylor Mac, Jo Lampert

 Also with Jo Lampert (a wonderfully mercurial actor) and TL Thompson.

One can’t help but applaud the infinite variety of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s oeuvre. Though she’s previously written with unique perspective about feminist issues – notably, 2010 Pulitzer Prize nominee The Vibrator Play – never to my knowledge has a piece arrived in this kind of unconventional format.  Association with Will Davis is a kismet.

The script is economic, yet eminently says what it means. Some is flowery: “He possessed the power to stir the fancy and rivet the eye.” When Orlando wakes a woman, she’s “ravishing, their form combined in one strength of a man and a woman’s grace.” Did Virginia Woolf use the pronoun “they?” It works either way. The simple, “Orlando buys himself a new outfit” is amusing in context. Greek chorus narration is seamlessly interwoven, both furthering the tale and adding occasional winks.

Taylor Mac

Innocent Orlando faces sexual change disconcerted, but with an open mind. Emerging sexual feelings are described as if new. Accommodation and realizations are clear and human. Centuries pass without fuss. A contest intending to discourage one suitor is grand. Ruhl is insightful in what she chooses to interpret and emphasize. The hero/ heroine’s point of view is historically observant but set in contemporary context, i.e. it sounds relevant. The play feels revelant and lovingly manifest.

Director Will Davis knows just how far to exaggerate. The feminist treatise segues into farce and even vaudeville without losing its plumb line. Individual movement, sometimes mime, is creative. Pauses are as fruitful as speech. Accents are judiciously employed. Davis has said he thinks of the piece “as an actor-operated handmade spectacle….we call something into being and we become it.”  It’s as if we’re watching a ragtag bunch of traveling players (some opulently attired). Treatment is inspired. Davis’ choreography-in-unison between scenes is droll.

Scenic design (Arnuldo Maldonado) consisting of mobile pieces – a curtained entryway, doll house-sized buildings with lit interiors, and a growing tree – charmingly and effectively represent full size components. Fine art backdrops are evocative and well chosen.

Oana Botez’ costumes are highly inventive, aesthetically appealing, and often lavish. Higgledy-piggledy opening outfits over which chorus costumes are worn might, however, better serve if more subdued so additions would pop. Hair, wig, and makeup design (Krystal Balleza and Will Vicari) are appropriate to decade and satire as well as winning.

Two films and two theatrical versions have preceded. Sally Potter’s wonderful 1992 film with Tilda Swinton as Orlando and Quentin Crisp as the Queen can be streamed on Apple TV and Amazon Prime.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: l-r, top: Jo Lampert, TL Thompson, Rad Pereira; l-r bottom: Nathan Lee Graham, Taylor Mac, Janice Amaya, Lisa Kron

Orlando by Sarah Ruhl
Directed and Choreographed by Will Davis (recently appointed Artistic Director of Rattlestick Theater)
Adapted from the novel by Virginia Woolf

Through May 12, 2024

Signature Theatre
480 West 42nd Street

About Alix Cohen (1751 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.