400 Years in the Life of 'Orlando'

For KQED Arts. By Sam Hurwitt. Aug 20, 2013.

Large ImageSoren Santos and Stephanie DeMott in Orlando

Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando is a curious concoction. Light years away from the slow-moving, stream-of-consciousness meditations of To the Lighthouse, Orlando is the playful, satirical tale of a young Elizabethan nobleman who abruptly transforms into a woman sometime in the late 1700s and who lives more than 300 years without making much fuss about it. Sally Potter made a terrific movie of it in 1992, and now Berkeley’s TheatreFIRST brings us the stage adaptation by the ever-luminous playwright Sarah Ruhl.

Ruhl’s version dates from 2003, so it’s a little strange that it’s taken so long for the play to have its professional Bay Area premiere, after an American Conservatory Theater MFA student production five years ago. Berkeley Repertory Theatre has almost had a lock on local premieres of Sarah Ruhl plays since 2004’s sublime Eurydice, followed up by In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), Three Sisters and Dear Elizabeth. But Ruhl’s an awfully popular playwright, and from time to time another company gets a chance to bring one of her plays to the Bay Area for the first time, as TheatreWorks did with The Clean House, SF Playhouse with Dead Man’s Cell Phone and Actors Ensemble of Berkeley with Passion Play. Most of these plays have made the rounds of other companies since then; I know of at least two Eurydices in the Bay Area this spring alone.

Actors Ensemble’s 2011 production of Passion Play at Live Oak Theatre was notable because a community theater had scored the West Coast premiere (no doubt in part because of the daunting four-hour length of the three-part play). Now the formerly nomadic company TheatreFIRST has taken over management of the Live Oak Theatre, after decades of AE managing the space in exchange for free rent. In addition to its own shows, the new company in residence will make the venue available to other troupes on a regular basis, such as Just Theater’s recently closed double feature of A Maze and Underneath the Lintel. Orlando is the company’s first show in its new home and opens its 20th anniversary season.

Ruhl’s adaptation beautifully captures the spare eloquence of Woolf’s language from the novel. The play calls for a versatile ensemble that acts as a group narrator and shifts continually from role to role to role, which evokes the way Orlando drifts through the centuries as faces, styles and customs change around her. Actors sometimes play characters of the opposite gender, mirroring the gender ambiguity of Orlando herself.

Soren Santos, Andrea Day, Stephanie DeMott, Janne Barklis, Marlene Yarosh and Michael Barr in Orlando.
Director Domenique Lozano gives the play a graceful and sparkling staging with a strong cast. The opening is puzzling, with a brief interpretive dance and a lot of gasping in delight, but once the text kicks in it’s an enchanting ride. Stephanie DeMott is an appealing Orlando, charming in boyish enthusiasm and touching in heartbreak. Andrea Day makes a dignified Queen Elizabeth, who takes a liking to Orlando’s shapely legs, and Janne Barklis is a sultry Russian beauty as Sasha, Orlando’s fickle first love.

Soren Santos makes a sensitive and simpatico match for our heroine in Victorian times as Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, a new love whom she feels she knows everything about as soon as they meet. Fresh from playing the title role in Porchlight Theatre Company’s Scapino!, Michael Barr is an amusingly relentless admirer as the compulsively giggling Archduchess Harriet. (Although the gender casting is somewhat fluid, as Ruhl recommends in the script, when men play women in this production it’s consistently for laughs.) Marlene Yarosh plays a pleasing variety of characters from a distressed Elizabethan fiancée to a seductive chambermaid and a perky shopgirl.

Michael Barr, Andrea Day, Stephanie DeMott and Soren Santos in Orlando.
The actors provide many of the sound effects for the production with the aid of a foley table on the side of the stage. There are also more traditional disembodied noises in Ryan Lee Short’s sound design, but it greatly adds to the theatricality to see the performers flap umbrellas to conjure a storm or roll small items around in a tambourine to suggest the sea. Martin Flynn’s set looks rough at first, with a white sheet hung askew in the foreground, but becomes much more attractive when the veil is drawn aside to reveal a large, twisted tree that Orlando takes 400 years trying to compose a poem about. Callie Floor’s handsome costumes suitably capture the spirit of the age as time passes.

The fantastical premise is handled matter-of-factly and comes as no great shock to anyone in the story. Sure, it took Orlando hundreds of years to reach her mid-30s; some people just need more time to grow up than others. The sexual politics are handled with particularly biting wit. While she enjoys the sensation of being a woman, Orlando chafes at the restrictions and proprieties she’s expected to observe, recalling that when she was a man, “she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste and scented” and only now knows just how much work that entails. As a fanciful satire of gender roles, Orlando is a delight, and it’s an awfully good start to this next chapter in TheatreFIRST’s journey as a company.