From Tilda Swinton’s recent curation of “Orlando,” a photography exhibit inspired by her role in Sally Potter’s film adaptation of the groundbreaking Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, to the release of Chanya Button’s “Vita and Virginia,” it seems that “Orlando” is having a bit of a moment in pop culture. With the premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s theatrical adaptation of “Orlando” at Vasey Theatre last week, it appears that Villanova is by no means immune to this “Orlando” fervor, either.
Villanova Theatre’s production, which debuted to an audience of students, faculty and benefactors last Tuesday, captures perfectly the essence of Woolf’s irreverent yet deeply meditative exploration of gender, identity and the self. The novel, which follows a young nobleman as he moves through five different centuries, transforming into a woman along the way, invites its readers to join its protagonist in contemplating the meaning of life, the complexity of the self and the absurdity of the rigid gender hierarchies that govern our lives.
In addressing the anxieties that come with such self-exploration in a satirical way, Woolf humorously copes with these worries. She deftly balances her flippant social commentary with serious exploration of the themes at hand. Similarly, under James Ijames’ direction, the cast, production designers and costumers at the Villanova Theatre handle these same themes in a dynamic, moving and hilarious way that remains true to the spirit of Woolf’s creation.
From the opening moments of the play, viewers are instantly confronted with challenges to the gender binaries operating in Orlando’s world. As the cast first floods the stage, each actor dons the same all-white Elizabethan period costume, composed of men’s trousers and women’s corsets, thus blurring the boundaries between masculine and feminine from the outset. Immediately clued in to the sort of gender-bending that is to take place for the remaining ninety minutes or so of the show, viewers then watch not only as Orlando shifts genders, but as members of the ensemble do the same, as indicated by their frequent changes of adornment.
That is, when members of the chorus take on additional supporting roles, each actor embodies a role intended for the gender opposite their own, and their attire follows suit. Queen Elizabeth, for instance, is played by a man with both considerable facial hair and a full face of makeup, while Orlando’s male lover, Shelmerdine, is played by a fully-suited woman. Such striking visual dichotomies force the audience to ceaselessly reconcile with affronts to traditional notions of dress and gender, as these changes are constant. Each actor takes on many identities throughout the show. More telling is how seamlessly these gender shifts occur, the ease of which captures precisely the fluidity of identity that Woolf seeks to uncover in her novel.
Rather than just present us with these subversions of identity and expect us to passively accept them, however, the cast actively engages the audience with these changes and invites us to make meaning of both Orlando’s experiences and our own through the use of a third person narrative voice. For the entire show, the ensemble acts as Orlando’s collective narrator, while Orlando simultaneously serves as their own third-person narrator, who speaks directly to the audience and describes themselves as though they are an outsider looking in. In doing so, Orlando draws the audience into a silent but mutually-understood dialogue with the cast. This invitation to engage, coupled with the fact that the majority of Orlando’s story is told through such narration rather than direct dialogue and utilizes minimal stage props, serves as a physical manifestations of the stream of consciousness exploration of the self that Woolf centralizes in her novel. In true Woolfian fashion, we are drawn into the mind of our protagonist, tasked with creating our own meanings of that which unfolds before us.
Crucially, humor is used by our Orlando - played brilliantly by Sarah Stryker - and the other players as a point of entry through which we, the viewers, may open ourselves up to such reevaluations of binary identities and gender norms. In fact, this humor is in many ways a central point of the show, and one its greatest strengths. From Stryker’s hilarious facial expressions, to a tap-dancing Shakespeare, comedy abounds in this production. Worth mentioning, too, is the unsung star of the show: Jay V. Kimberley, the male actor who plays Harriet Griselda. With his piercingly high-pitched “tee-hee’s” and alarmingly deep “haw-haw’s,” his attempts to giggle and flirt with Orlando left the audience erupting in uncontrollable peals of laughter, reminding us to take neither ourselves, nor the gendered binaries we both find and place ourselves in, too seriously.
Yet, for all the laughter and absurdity in this show, the final act, marked by nostalgia and somber introspection, brings the viewer back to the most profound questions Woolf asks of her readers in the first place. In the play’s final moments, all the comedy is stripped away, as Orlando stands alone with the ghost of Queen Elizabeth, under pale flickering lights, poignantly begging for a new self and an answer to the question of what, exactly, the meaning of life is. But, for the distraught Orlando — played so affectingly by Stryker that the audience could not help but marvel at her in utter silence — the answer never comes. As Woolf says in another of her most highly-regarded works, “To the Lighthouse,” the great revelation as to what the purpose of existence is, what it means to love and, ultimately, who we are, never does come — not to Orlando, nor to the audience.
Perhaps, this is the staying power of “Orlando,” and why it continues to remain so relevant even if, as the play’s opening lines state, these characters and their creator are of another, much different age. Just as Orlando lives on from century to century, taking new shape, so does Woolf’s novel — in this case, in the form of Ruhl’s adaptation and Stryker’s performance — asking us the same questions time and again. We continually struggle with questions of identity, higher purpose and what it means to be human. In fact, we always have. And though the answer never comes, we never stop searching for it; we likely never will.
“Orlando” is now showing at Vasey Theatre through October 6th. If you have the opportunity, go check it out. it surely isn’t one to miss!