TheatreFirst returns with terrific 'Orlando'

By Pat Craig, Correspondent, San Jose Mercury News.

Playwright Sarah Rule is a charming trickster, particularly in her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s, “Orlando,” now playing at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theatre over the weekend.

The characters she creates careen across the stage like so many super-balls, and draw you into the story, then carry you gently into an unpretentiously smart world of time-tripping, gender-bending and history.

Like much of Ruhl’s work, you skip through her world of heady ideas having so much fun you don’t realize until you’re chest deep that this is much more than a romp.

The show begins with players frolicking on a stage dominated by a large tree, whose branches stretch the width of the proscenium. They seem content to play on the stage, dancing, running and jumping like the fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Orlando (Stephanie DeMott) climbs the tree and revels in the abundant nature surrounding him. Soon, though, he is spotted by Queen Elizabeth (Andrea Day) and immediately invited to join the court and become an intimate of the queen.

Eventually, Orlando is having strange yearnings — for others in the court and for Sasha (Janne Barklis) the willowy Russian countess. But he feels nothing for the European royal (Soren Santos) who is awkwardly staging a courtship. The campaign is so bumbling and annoying, Orlando tries to escape by going to Turkey.

And it is there that Orlando discovers his secret — he is actually a she, and that changes everything (and produces a brief nude scene, if you are bothered by such things).

The previous small instances of gender politics suddenly make sense, and continue, charmingly, as Orlando explores her new role as a woman, getting used to wearing the confining and uncomfortable dresses of the time, and no longer being able to stab people and fend for herself in even the tiniest way.

She observes that each sex has distinct advantages and disadvantages, and that holds true even when she’s traveling through time. Yes, time flies in “Orlando” and so does the cast, including the aforementioned actors and, along with Marlene Yarosh and Michael Barr, who populate the racing centuries with a huge variety of characters. Only DeMott plays a single character throughout.

Lozano has directed the show in a fast-paced combination of dance and slapstick, pausing only briefly for some more intimate, quiet scenes. And the half-dozen in the cast perform all that’s demanded of them beautifully for the astoundingly rapid hour-and-45-minutes the show plays.

This is the 20th anniversary season for Theatre First, and gets off to a great start in the company’s new Berkeley digs in the Live Oak Theatre on the north end of Shattuck Avenue, past the gourmet ghetto and into the residential area.

The theater seems well-suited to the company, and hopefully will serve as a permanent home for years to come.