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Orlando

A revival of Sarah Ruhl’s beautiful homage to the original 1928 Virginia Woolf novel wise beyond its years re: matters of gender, sexuality and identity.

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The company of Sarah Ruhl’s “Orlando” at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

[avatar user=”Tony Marinelli” size=”96″ align=”left”] Tony Marinelli, Critic[/avatar]

Every now and then there comes a work of literature (or theater, if we take plays out of the context of literature) that is impactful way beyond the then-current system of judging its value and place in the canon. So was the 1928 Virginia Woolf novel about a young boy elevated to the ranks of English nobleman by Queen Elizabeth I only to wake up one day in his thirties as a woman who will then live on another few centuries into the roaring 1920’s.

The character of Orlando is fixated upon by the Queen. He is beautiful beyond all imagination and the Queen has the power to do something for him so that he wants for nothing. In the contemporary literature of the time, Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel Death in Venice with its lead character Aschenbach’s obsession for Tadzio, a beautiful young Polish boy, may come close to that all-consuming passion. It had its degree of scandal in its time as it was about a much older man having homosexual feelings for a much younger boy. Throughout history women have always had a separate code of conduct so Woolf’s Orlando may very well trump the Death in Venice tale as the character experiencing the feelings of obsession is a much older woman, but Orlando is not about Queen Elizabeth I, it is about Orlando. As long as we are subjecting women who misbehave to the microscope lens, let’s not forget the ancient Greek play about Phaedra and her obsession with her stepson Hippolytus.

Sarah Ruhl saw fit to dramatize the Woolf novel in 1998. It premiered Off-Broadway at NYC’s Classic Stage Company in 2010 at a time when people hearing the term “genderfluid” may have conjured up images of a drink you take to correct hormonal balance of testosterone and estrogen, rather than a person not having a fixed gender identity. It is interesting to see how attention to recognizing these people, with concerted efforts to not discriminate, is now the law. The press kit for the show mentions featuring seven cast members, four of whom use pronouns other than he/him or she/her, including the lead playing the complex role of Orlando.

Taylor Mac in the title role of Sarah Ruhl’s “Orlando” at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Taylor Mac, our Orlando, is an actor, playwright, performance artist, director, producer, and singer-songwriter. Mac’s twenty-four-hour-long A 24-Decade History of Popular Music was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017. Mac’s play Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus premiered on Broadway in April 2019 earning seven Tony Award nominations. Mac and Matt Ray’s The Hang premiered as part of the downtown opera festival known as Prototype in 2022 and then continued on for an additional sold-out six weeks at HERE Arts Center. Mac opened Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Winter 2024 Winter season with his new music-theater piece, Bark of Millions. Mac’s work crosses into various music genres and his performance style focuses on genderfluid characters complete with extravagant makeup, wigs, and costumes. It is hard to imagine this production of Orlando without Tylor Mac.

While the ensemble cast is excellent throughout, we do feel Taylor Mac’s absence when he goes offstage to change costumes (and that is quite a few times, one more sumptuous than the other – though not rivalling what goes on at a Cher concert). Most importantly the “new gender reveal” in Constantinople also occurs offstage. Inhabiting Orlando as a woman, Mac gives us one of the most heartfelt realizations, “How odd. When I was a young man, I insisted that women be obedient, chaste and scented. Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires. For women are not…obedient, chaste and scented by nature. They can only attain these graces by tedious discipline. There’s the hairdressing…that alone will take at least an hour of my morning…there’s looking in the looking glass…there’s being chaste year in and year out…Christ Jesus.”

Nathan Lee Graham gets a fair share of the laughs as Queen Elizabeth I with some utterances that would otherwise be under breath intentionally said loudly because the Queen can get away with it. Graham makes a statement in the sumptuous period dress of QEI and the only thing missing from the early scenes between QEI and Orlando is the requisite drool missing from Graham’s chin. Lisa Kron who skillfully plays the archduchess (a character that flips gender back and forth depending on the setting and scene partner) must be awarded combat pay for a towering headpiece and layers of brocade for the archduchess and an even more exhausting headpiece for the archduke. Janice Amaya as Sasha defines “impetuous” as they move quickly into and out of a relationship with Orlando. Amaya plays up the hiding of the infidelity so well we see that glimmer of Sasha actually believing the sincerity of loving Orlando. Jo Lampert as Grimsditch, Rad Pereira as Marmaduke and TL Thompson as the Sea Captain give complete performances but as all the actors other than Mac also perform intricate chorus duties narrating the show, some full characters get a little buried.

Lisa Kron, Jo Lampert, Taylor Mac and TL Thompson in a scene from Sarah Ruhl’s “Orlando” at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Director Will Davis’ attack on Orlando is a joyous romp but never loses sight of the fact that Orlando, in both genders, is a complex person that wants to love and be loved. Davis’ gentleness, particularly in those solo moments for Orlando, is a testament to the love Davis has for this play and for what it continues to say to us about gender and identity.

Davis is supported by a stalwart team of designers in this task. It would seem at the opening that scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado is going for minimalism in long tables and oversized photo shoot umbrellas. The spaciousness of Signature’s Diamond stage provides the “space” for a gigantic mural of an Elizabethan village just so we know where we are. Later the stage submits to a colossal pendulum providing the not-so-subtle suggestion of time.

Oana Botez’s costumes also begin with minimalism flirting in on-the-cheap track suits affixed to elaborate period costume pieces. This quickly becomes a showcase for some of the most sumptuous costume design currently off-Broadway. Elizabethan ruffled collars complement Jackson Pollack-meets paisley fabrics and red thigh-high boots we haven’t seen since Kinky Boots – and that’s only one of Mac’s costumes! Barbara Samuels’ lighting becomes superb support to all of Botez’s colors splashed all over the set. Krystal Balleza and Will Vaccari team up for inventive hair, wig and makeup design that is as detailed for chorus narration as it is for the effuse Elizabeth I.

Tl Thompson and Taylor Mac in a scene from Sarah Ruhl’s “Orlando” at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Woolf was so far ahead of a lot of us in peeling away at the binary as it relates to an individual’s sexuality and identity. It boggles the mind the novel was written nearly one hundred years ago, and how it must have shaken up the way a lot of people thought of “the individual” and how each person had his or her defined role in society. Ironically, Ruhl’s play is over 25 years old and, like Woolf’s novel, still has so much to teach us.

Orlando (through May 12, 2024)

The Pershing Square Signature Center

The Irene Diamond Stage, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.order.signaturetheatre.org

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes including one intermission

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About Tony Marinelli (57 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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