Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” is a journey through gender and time

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Virginia Woolf character Orlando
Virginia Woolf character Orlando

Virginia Woolf’s novel about an epic hero who journeys through gender and time returns to the New York stage scene. A gender expansive cast and a buoyant production will spotlight Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando, adapted from Woolf’s novel and directed by Will Davis. Once called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” Orlando was written by Woolf for her lover, Vita Sackville-West.

The titular character’s adventures begin as a young man, when he serves as courtier to Queen Elizabeth. Through many centuries of living, he becomes a 20th-century woman, trying to sort out her existence. This theatrical trip through space, time, and gender features Taylor Mac (A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Bark of Millions)—a visionary who’s no stranger to time traveling and irreverently breaking open the constraints of historical norms and musty mores—in the title role. Mac plays Orlando, along with an ensemble of acclaimed, boundary-breaking performers, including Janice Amaya (Off-Broadway: Lunch Bunch, SHHHH), Nathan Lee Graham (Broadway: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Film: Zoolander), Tony-winning Fun Home writer Lisa Kron (Broadway: Well; Off-Broadway: Good Person of Szechuan), Jo Lampert (Off-Broadway: Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, Hundred Days), and TL Thompson (Broadway: Straight White Men; Off-Broadway: Is This a Room?).

The creative team is Will Davis (Director and Choreographer), Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Design), Oana Botez (Costume Design), Barbara Samuels (Lighting Design), Brendan Aanes (Sound Design and Composition), Ann C. James (Intimacy Coordinator), Matt Carlin (Props Supervisor), and Kasson Marroquin (Production Stage Manager).

Davis, the director and choreographer, recently appointed Artistic Director of Rattlestick Theater, describes Ruhl’s joyously elliptical adaptation of Woolf’s eons-ahead-of-its-time canonical novel as a “bid for liberation.” Davis envisions his production as an actor-operated “handmade spectacle” in which performers with distinct relationships to and journeys with gender create and erase, inhabit and leap across whole centuries onstage in real-time.

The entirety of the stage will be a visible site of invention in Davis’ athletic and choreographic staging. The production aims to spark audiences’ own transcendent imaginations to cross constructed but stubborn societal thresholds — as performers vividly assemble new understandings of place, time, self, and community with the DIY props and set-pieces at their fingertips.

Says Davis, “One of the things the theater does, and one of the things a lot of folks — myself included — have done is we call something into being: we name it, then we become it. Of course, sometimes in conversations around gender, there’s a perceived binary of transformation, but it’s more complex than that: the novel and the play are about fumbling towards self and the divine chaotic nature of that. We’re trying to replicate that in the ‘handmade’ worlds performers create and recreate.

“Every environment that the audience will experience century to century or scene to scene, we will watch the ensemble build and then take apart. That’s part of the dedication to a bid for liberation and the dramaturgical imperative of queer place-making: define things on your own terms and then share that with others.”

With Orlando, playwright Ruhl once again exhibits her flair for playful, surprising adaptation of literary works into dynamic theater, and an ability to examine subjects as vast as mortality and gender with levity and wit.

“I’ve experimented a lot with how to stage literary language theatrically — for instance, using narration in a way that’s theatrical,” says Ruhl. “Soliloquy, and talking to and telling stories to the audience in a very transparent way, feel like such natural parts of theater’s toolbox, and yet it’s really common for actors to be timid about addressing the audience! So it makes sense that the cast comprises a number of writer-performers, who are really adept at handling this kind of language. In A 24-Decade History, Taylor Mac talked to the audience all night long. I remember first seeing that show — and seeing some of Machine Dazzle’s costumes on display in the lobby — and thinking, ‘Taylor needs to be Orlando.’”

Orlando is at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W 42nd St) in The Irene Diamond Stage. Performances run through May 12, 2024. The May 4 performance at 2 pm will be open captioned, the May 4 performance at 8 pm is an ASL performance, and the May 5 performance at 2 pm will be audio described.

signaturetheatre.org/show/orlando