Grown-up women worship Virginia Woolf the way their daughters adore J.K. Rowling. That goes for scribe Sarah Ruhl, helmer Rebecca Taichman and a radiant Francesca Faridany, who have collaborated on a stage version of this curious 1927 novel that any woman (and her daughter) might love. Given that Orlando has a lifespan of 300 years and changes gender during the 18th century, the novel presents huge challenges. But by treating this dream-like piece like … well, a dream, the collaborators capture both the intellectual spirit and the literary brilliance of Woolf’s most imaginative work.
All it takes is one look at Allen Moyer’s scenic design to know that this is not going to be a conventional journey. The giant gilded mirror that hangs suspended over the stage advises the audience (seated on three sides of the open space) to “reflect” carefully on what they think they’re seeing. A tiny, exquisitely detailed model of a grand mansion, internally illuminated by Christopher Akerlind, frees the eye (and the mind) from the realistic perspective that normally binds them.
Most astonishing are Anita Yavich’s gorgeous costumes that wittily caution us not to judge a woman by the gender-defining costumes that society forces her to wear.
Faridany (“The 39 Steps”) is altogether ravishing in the androgynous role of Orlando, which Woolf famously dedicated to her beloved Vita Sackville-West. (“It’s all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind,” Woolf wrote to her of the novel.) Bursting with life as a fine young Elizabethan gentleman, thesp seems to take particular pleasure in pursuing Sasha (Annika Boras, in a spectacular ruby gown), that “faithless, fickle” Russian beauty who breaks his heart.
Although no less charming when our hero is transformed into our heroine, Faridany becomes more introspective, allowing Orlando to explore “the penalties and privileges” of her newly assumed gender until she is able to transcend them.
Even as Orlando struggles to adjust to those curious social conventions that determine a woman’s position down through the ages, the production never loses faith with Woolf’s wry, playful humor. When Orlando marries, she steps into pretty but confining gold-ringed petticoats. But this is a character who simply can’t be restrained, and Ruhl writes with the imaginative sweep that allows her spirit (and Woolf’s poetry) to soar.
Ruhl has said that she developed the piece with the Piven Theater Workshop in Chicago, whose classic story-theater techniques are perfect for her fluid narrative style. But one wonders what Paul Sills would make of the overly playful liberties taken here by the ensemble — three guys in white suits who mince around the stage (to Rebecca Taichman’s overly precious choreography) trying to be cute. For that matter, what would Virginia Woolf think?