SF Chronicle 'Orlando' review: Magically shifting gender, time

by Robert Hurwitt.
Published 5:06 pm, Sunday, August 18, 2013


Simplicity is magical in “Orlando.” That’s as true for Sarah Ruhl’s lovingly crafted adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s time-bending, gender-shifting novel as it is for Woolf’s mesmerizing prose. In the TheatreFirst “Orlando,” which opened Friday, the simple directness of staging and acting work an incremental wonder all their own.

It’s a welcome return for the 20-year-old East Bay company, after two years of homelessness and the cancellation of its last season, and what looks like the welcome revival of a once oft-used performance space. “Orlando” marks the beginning of TheatreFirst’s residency as the managing company at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theatre, and it’s already actively booking other groups into the space, including the well-regarded Just Theater and Symmetry Theatre.

But the most welcome part of the occasion is the chance to see another fascinating play by Ruhl (“Eurydice,” “In the Next Room or the vibrator play”) in what may be its local professional premiere. In swift, deft strokes, director Domenique Lozano and a resourceful cast, headed by a luminously unassuming Stephanie DeMott, use story-theater creativity to enlist our imaginations in Woolf’s evocative tale.

That’s the story, in simplest terms, of the 16th century lad who grows up from being the boy-toy lover of Queen Elizabeth at 16, and then a womanizing ambassador to Constantinople, to discover that he’s become a woman at age 30 – in the 18th century. She turns 36 in the 1920s and probably still lives among us.

Lovers of the novel may miss some significant episodes, and at times Ruhl’s adaptation can seem a bit scattershot. Orlando’s legal problems, for example, are introduced in one witty stroke (does she still own the property he inherited?) and then left hanging. But for the most part, Ruhl’s poetically spare style dovetails with Woolf’s prose and enhances the velocity of the novel while highlighting the still moments of contemplation within its momentum.

There are rough edges in Lozano’s production as well, particularly in the supporting ensemble’s handling of musical instruments, some slipping accents and occasional slipshod characterizations. But most such lapses are quickly and easily subsumed in the onrush of ever-changing characters, shifting choral and dialogue passages, the flow of Callie Floor’s period-defining costumes, and the radio-show-like sound effects for skaters, horses, flies and the cacophony of the opening of the 20th century.

There are standout moments, large and small, for every ensemble member, from Andrea Day’s imperious, cuttingly observant Elizabeth (and various servants) and Janne Barklis’ seductively hot-reserved Russian princess to Soren Santos’ buoyantly smitten Marmaduke, who helps Orlando discover her female sexuality. Santos, Michael Barr and Marlene Yarosh are comically over the top as many of the young Orlando’s more ardent women pursuers.

DeMott holds it all together from her first appearance as the androgynous youth with a yearning for poetry and “the shapeliest legs of any nobleman in England” through her ever-more restlessly questing mind in the full flower of womanhood. Her protracted, strained silences with Barr’s unwelcome male suitor are particular delights.

DeMott’s brightly nuanced gender transition seals the deal. As Orlando begins to discern all the differences in his/her social standing, rights and limitations, DeMott radiates the emotional shifts taking place deep inside. In her elastic gender identity lies the heart of Ruhl and Woolf’s “Orlando.”


the_little_manOrlando: Drama. By Sarah Ruhl, adapted from the novel by Virginia Woolf, Directed by Domenique Lozano. Through Sept. 15. TheatreFirst, Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. One hour, 50 minutes. $15-$30. (510) 981-8150. www.theatrefirst.com.