Lyric Stage's "Virginia Woolf's Orlando": Not Mickey Mouse

Rory Lambert-Wright, Caroline Lawton & Jeff Marcus in "Orlando"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

In the history of theater, there has long been a tradition of choral storytelling, much of it very fondly remembered (such as Paul Sills' 1970 Story Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic 1980 The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby). It often appeared as an outgrowth of improv theater, with a sense of controlled spontaneity and exhuberance. In this same vein has arrived Virginia Woolf's Orlando, now being performed by Lyric Stage (in collaboration with Suffolk University's Theatre Department). An adaptation by Sarah Ruhl from Woolf's long love letter to Vita-Sackville-West, it consists of a half dozen episodic ventures (or adventures) involving half a dozen actors through half a dozen centuries (that's a lot of half-dozens) beginning with the Elizabethan era and ending in the “present moment”. In ninety gender-bending minutes (including an intermission), our hero/heroine Orlando (Caroline Lawton) encounters members of a five person acting chorus (here played by Elise Arsenault. Michael Hisamoto, Rory Lambert-Wright, Jeff Marcus and Halyey Spivey. The journey, reminiscent of that of another youth (in Voltaire's Candide) is Directed by A. Nora Long, the company's Assistant Artistic Director, with versatile Scenic Design by Richard Wadsworth Chambers, impressive Costume Design by Jessica Pribble and complex Lighting Design by Steven McIntosh. Here is a bit of a triptik for theatergoers (with what one hopes are not too many spoilers) to aid in one's appreciation of this take on Orlando's journey, which as noted above, despite its title, does not remotely feature a voyage to the land of the Mouse.

Orlando, a sixteen year old boy when first introduced by the chorus, longs to be famous, so he sets about writing a great poem, “The Oak Tree”. Queen Elizabeth, quite taken with him, sets him up at court with titles, land and her heart until she catches him with another and falls ill. The Great Frost occurs, trapping some Russian ships in ice, which is how Orlando meets and falls in love with the Russian Princess Sasha. Jealous at catching Sasha in bed with another, he first rages but then decides to run away with her, but the Great Thaw occurs, freeing the Russian ships which depart with Sasha. Orlando returns to his poetry, but the Romanian Archduchess attempts to seduce him, so he asks to be sent to Constantinople, where he beds the gypsy Rosina Pepita, eventually awakening as a woman. She returns to England to work on her poem,where the Archduchess exposes herself to Orlando as a man and tries again to seduce Orlando to no avail. A century later Orlando, finding herself surrounded by nothing but married couples, trips and breaks her ankle. A man on horseback arrives and they are shortly engaged and subsequently married. Finally, a century still later (the twentieth, if you've been keeping score), Orlando feels a bit like a duck out of water amidst all the technology that surrounds her, and decides after a visit from an old friend to return to writing her great work, The Oak Tree, as a clock strikes midnight.

Michael Hisamoto, Jeff Marcus, Caroline Lawton, Rory Lambert-Wright & Hayley Spivey
in "Orlando"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As Director Long puts it, Woolf “relished the idea that the mind of the artist is androgynous”, so she most likely would have enjoyed the wordplay and transtheatrical hijinks. Whether an audience member concurs might well depend on how one appreciates the literary short story form versus a more coherent and sustained storytelling work, or a novella as opposed to a more in-depth novel. There is much to be learned and loved in all of these possible choices.

But, unlike the previous plays noted above, Ruhl's take is by definition episodic, which leads to a lot of repetitious themes. The cast tries nobly to keep the narrative threads reasonably intact, but the text divides rather then conquers. There were also some pacing issues, which may have been due to one cast member's being indisposed (and, with remarkable poise on the part of the other actors, seamlessly dropped from the last scene). There are some cogent points made by the adapting playwright (equating being dead and a woman, in the context of women's lack of power or influence over the ages, or how one can be struck and disoriented, then altered, by exposure to the arts). But one wishes she had provided a more focused romp, such as the way in which Story Theatre utilized Grimm fairy tales and Aesop's fables with a complete story in each of its segments, or the opposite approach with Nicholas Nickleby's continuing narrative with more time to devote to development of a few supporting characters. In this Orlando, one never has a sense of who the various roles are, with comings and goings so fleeting that they leave little impact. It's as though one were at a banquet sampling appetizers without feeling sufficiently satisfied in the end; it may be that Ruhl is slightly fearful of overdoing the message she wishes to convey.

What's indisputable about this piece is that she certainly isn't afraid of Virginia Woolf.

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