Orlando: Right You Are, if You Think You Are
In Some Like It Hot (directed by Billy Wilder) Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, on the lam after witnessing a mob killing, pose as girls in an all-girls band with lead singer Marilyn Monroe. Lemmon becomes so enraptured with his female character that he begins to enjoy himself. As he relaxes after an enchanted evening with his millionaire suitor Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), he plays the maracas as he imparts the thrilling news that he and Osgood have become engaged. Curtis looks at him in shock. “Why would a guy want to marry another guy?” He asks. Lemmon replies, with a shake of his maracas, “Security!” This glittering gem of a movie has something of the effervescent charm of Orlando, as presented by WSC Avant Bard.
Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, the play has been adapted brilliantly by the talented Sarah Ruhl, recipient of a MacArthur genius grant and internationally produced playwright. Director Amber Jackson displays a creativity, imagination, and sparkle that belong to the very best comedic artists. She is well served by the universally outstanding cast, and the entire production, from lighting to scenery to music to costumes, has the taste of champagne on a moonlit night when the stars are out and dreams seem not just possible but very, very real.
Woolf’s novel (a fictional biography) is said to be a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, aristocrat, author, and the great passion of Woolf’s life. John Lehmann, who knew Virginia well, notes that it is meant to be fun and fantasy, full of exaggeration, androgyny, and a panorama of English history. (John Lehmann, Virginia Woolf, Thames & Hudson, 1975). Orlando, who is ageless, is presented as living in Elizabethan England through the “present day”, i.e. 1928. Woolf referred to it as, “an escapade; the spirit to be satiric, the structure wild.” (The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Three, 1925-1930, edited by Anne Olivier Bell assisted by Andrew McNeillie, HBJ, 1980). Initially one of the most popular of Woolf’s books, it is replete with paradox. Orlando’s often joking tone reflects an important aspect of the Vita-Virginia relationship. In 1927, Virginia sent Vita a dummy copy of To the Lighthouse, with the dedication, “In my opinion the best novel I have ever written.” The pages were all blank.
Not everyone was a fan of the book. Arnold Bennett, whose traditional style as a novelist made him a natural detractor of Virginia’s, met Virginia at a party the day after he had panned her book. When he said, “I thought it a very bad book,” Virginia riposted swiftly, “You can’t hate my books any more than I hate yours, Mr. Bennett.” (Moments of Being, A Collection of Autobiographical Writing by Virginia Woolf, Jeanne Schulkind, ed., Harcourt, 1985).
Was Orlando Vita? Virginia herself thought so. She wrote to Vita “[I]ts all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind.” In her perceptive biography of Woolf, Hermione Lee writes, “Vita’s class, her ancestral house, her looks, her sensuality, her resistance to convention, her travels, her unusual marriage (Vita’s husband, Harold Nicolson, also had homosexual affairs) her writing; all that is in the biography.” (Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf, Knopf, 1996). But although both women had stable marriages and affairs which were unconventional for the time, Virginia and Leonard spent more time together than Vita and Harold, and were more liberal politically. (Lee, Virginia Woolf). As Lee notes, there is parody as well as celebration; and Orlando, unlike Vita, is “showy, glittering, witty and camp…anarchic and socially unsettling. Orlando’s (and Orlando’s) feminism is—of course much more Virginia Woolf’s than Vita’s…It is a critique of sexual censorship, and of fixed notions of sexual difference, which is also cunningly self-censoring.” The great house which Orlando owns is based on Knole, the enormous and ancient dwelling of the Sackville-Wests, which, ironically, Vita was unable to inherit because she was a woman.
Sarah Ruhl described her philosophy of the theatre this way, in an interview by Paula Vogel in the Spring 2007 issue of Bomb Magazine (Bomb 99); “I came into the theatre wanting to feel and think at the same time, to have the thought affect the emotion and the emotion affect the thought.” In the 2008 New Yorker, John Lahr writes of Ruhl’s desire to “project the delights of pretense, ‘the interplay between the actual and the magical.’ ’’ This aim makes her a perfect choice to adapt Woolf’s writing, with Woolf’s love of open/closed, hidden/obvious, historical/ageless antinomies.
Sara Barker as Orlando gives a performance full of nuance, humor, and, at times, deep emotion. Her male and female personas flicker across her face like clouds on a summer day. She is also able to suggest the pain Orlando feels; as she says “I am dead” we hear the sound of waves, which reminds us of Woolf’s suicide as she walked into the sea. Our last image of her echoes that terrible event too; as she looks for a small boat, she leaps forward, as if to go into the ocean. And yet, her joy in living makes these tragic undertones merely the background to what is essentially a story of love and liberty.
Amanda Forstrom is a delightful Sasha, a character which is said to be based on Vita’s first love, Violet Trefusis. Violet and Vita eloped at one point and both of their husbands had to run after and retrieve them from France. (Lee, Virginia Woolf). Sasha’s wildness seems to release something in Orlando, and their scenes together are full of athleticism, fun, and flirtation.
Mario Baldessari (Chorus) exploits to the full his opportunity to play one of the strangest and most unpredictable Queen Elizabeth I’s I have ever seen. He gets to do a few lines of her Armada speech at Tilbury, and carries them off with great aplomb, as well as all of the other roles he plays. In fact, though I have no proof, I suspect that Elizabeth herself would have found his performance hilarious.
Jay Hardee (Chorus) plays the utterly indescribable Archduchess/Archduke with an abandonment and hysteria I have rarely seen outside of the Marx Brothers movies. In his every role he gives his all, finding every shade of meaning and extracting every possible ounce of comedy.
Andrew Ferlo (Chorus) plays Orlando’s true love, Shel, with a gentleness which is perfectly in tune with Orlando’s playfulness and spirit. The two are especially on target as they each try to assess whether the other is in fact a man or a woman, and then proceed to determine the facts in the most enjoyable way possible. Ferlo has many engaging moments as he too portrays a multitude of roles.
Scenic Designer Steven Royal has created a very successful and attractive environment for the production. There is just enough detail to provide accent and flair, without detracting from the center of the action. Joseph R. Walls has provided apt and lovely lighting, using it not only to set the mood but to emphasize character and plot points. Sound Designer Veronica J. Lancaster does truly exceptional work here, utilizing the music and sound to set the period and underscore the emotional and physical action of the piece. Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny and Kevin Laughon (Props) are to be applauded for very imaginative, evocative, and stylish choices.
Androgyny, cross-dressing, and homosexuality are not as controversial now as they were in Woolf’s day. But seen in the context of Woolf’s time, the fantasy and humor enable her to address subjects which were largely taboo. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was ruled “an obscene libel [that] should be destroyed” in December of 1928, at a trial in which Woolf went to give evidence. Woolf was also, miraculously, able to convey the indefinable essence of a love which was deep and lasting. She writes to Vita: “But you don’t see, donkey West, that you’ll be tired of me one of these days (I’m so much older) and so I have to take my little precautions. That’s why I put the emphasis on ‘recording’ rather than feeling. But donkey West knows she has broken down more ramparts than anyone.” (Lee, Virginia Woolf.)
Somehow the joy of acceptance makes the paradox of “unconventional” love moving as well as funny. At the end of Some Like It Hot Lemmon and Osgood are in a small boat, soon to be married. Desperate, Lemmon pulls off his wig. “You don’t understand, Osgood. I’m a man!” he shrieks. Osgood smiles beatifically. “Oh, well,” he says. “Nobody’s perfect!
Woolf was a genius ahead of her time; it is our good fortune that her writing has found such gifted and dedicated artists to give new life to her complex, profound visions. Alexandra Harris writes in Virginia Woolf (Thames & Hudson, 2011); “We are still in pursuit of Woolf, although we need not be like hounds. And seventy years after her death she is still a long way ahead, drawing us on. Like Daphne, the girl who runs like a hare in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Virginia Woolf has a habit of changing shape to stay alive.”
Every aspect of WSC Avant Bard’s Orlando – from the cast to the direction to the design – has been assembled with love and attention.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one intermission.
Orlando plays through March 23, 2014 at WSC Avant Bard performing at Theatre on the Run – 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online.
Playing (with) Gender in WSC Avant Bard’s ‘Orlando’: Acting Insights from Sara Barker and Jay Hardee by John Stoltenberg.
Dramaturg Jenn Book Haselswerdt on ‘Orlando’ at WSC Avant Bard.