Orlando, Sarah Ruhl’s 2010 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography, is a brilliant example of the wholly un-newness of gender fluidity and thought around finding your true self apart from society’s norms and expectations.
Orlando is the story of a young man’s quest through 300 years of self-exploration, searching for love, power, and fulfillment. Constellation Theatre Company is currently showing Ruhl’s work rich with romance, betrayal, and adventure.
The set, designed by Sarah Beth Hall, is a beautiful Alice in Wonderland–esque display with flowery walls, a large cabinet that serves often as a doorway or a portal from the afterlife, numerous clocks set to different times, with vibrant colors, white columns, and an abundance of picture frames: standing and smaller portable portrait size. The result is a visually stimulating set that matches the tone of the production’s #LoveSexTimeTravel theme.
The play’s cast list can vary from three to eight performers with many roles doubling, and this version uses an ensemble of five actors, with Orlando and an ensemble of four, who speak as one for the chorus and alternately portray the remaining 16 characters. To accommodate this extensive role switching, costume changes are in abundance, and Designer Kitt Crescenzo has created an elegant yet simple base design for the chorus, with white, ruffled pantaloons and classically themed halter tops that then are layered upon with various coats, wigs, collars, and assorted pieces. The effect complements Hall’s colorful and fluctuating set design while also allowing for clear distinction between the characters.
As the play begins, the teenage Orlando (Mary Myers) impresses Queen Elizabeth I, played by Alan Naylor, and is made a Page in the Queen’s court. They form a deep bond, but soon the young Orlando is tempted by other romantic connections, as youth can be. Myers as Orlando is endearing, though impressionable, and full of passion, making it easy to forgive his fallibility and root for his journey. Naylor’s Queen Elizabeth I is all things regal, commanding, and unexpectedly tender, and watching as he and the chorus switch from one character to the next is a delight.
Orlando flits from affair to affair, settling on an engagement, only to be entranced by the mysterious Sasha (Edmée – Marie Faal), whom he spies skating along the frozen Thames River after the Great Frost of 1608. The lovers run off together, but Sasha is ultimately unfaithful to Orlando with a fellow Russian sailor, hilariously and crudely portrayed by Christian Montgomery. Faal is lovely as the beautiful yet devious Sasha, though the chemistry with Myers is lukewarm at best.
Heartbroken and attempting to escape the unwanted advances of Archduchess Harriet (Arika Thames), Orlando requests an assignment and leaves for his new position as Ambassador to Constantinople. Thames and Myers’ exchanges are quite funny, with Thames as a somewhat maniacal Archduchess obsessed with the irresistible Orlando. The cat-and-mouse physicality by Director Nick Martin works particularly well in this scene.
Orlando performs his duties in Constantinople but, after a tryst one night, sleeps for many days and awakens in the form of a woman. She is the same person but simply in the female form. Taking this surprisingly in stride, she decides to return home to England now as Lady Orlando. With amusing commentary on the discomforts of female attire but also the benefit of having literally nothing expected of you, Myers does a nice job showing the struggles of finding one’s truth and fighting against the restrictions put upon individuals by expected manner and dress.
And yet even though Orlando declares that it is good to be a woman, upon returning home she is forced to fight against the oppression of her sex. She faces a lawsuit to strip her of her home, as women are not legally allowed to own property. But Orlando ultimately wins the lawsuit and meets the handsome Marmaduke, played by Christian Montgomery, who is himself a gender nonconforming spirit, and the duo form a healthy and fulfilling connection. Montgomery is charming as Marmaduke and displays a playful and easy dynamic with Myers’ Orlando.
This is by no means the end, and there are many other relationships and plot points woven into the play. Like Orlando’s labor to complete a long poem, “The Oak Tree,” which has become their life’s work though they have never been able to fully find the proper words. The search to find their voice to complete the poem mimics the path of self-discovery with evolutions, mental and physical, that Orlando experiences.
The script is very language-heavy, as any Virginia Woolf-inspired play would be, and the tone constantly flips between chorale narration and character interactions. This back-and-forth can be confusing and the substance of the words can be lost, but the cast does a great job of maintaining the audience’s attention and driving the play on with energy and intermittent moments of levity.
Nick Martin’s direction is very picturesque but at times distractingly busy, with a lot of shuffling of set pieces that seems confusingly disconnected from the material, but overall the scenes carry a pleasant aesthetic.
Constellation Theatre Company’s production of Orlando is a visually delicious and humorous production prime for enjoyment. The themes of acceptance and self-exploration are timelessly relevant. There is also a refreshing ease in the way the subject of gender identity is naturally occurring, just as it is in real life, contrary to the implications of the current political climate on the subject. Kudos to the cast for delivering a difficult piece in a consumable fashion.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Orlando plays through November 11, 2023, presented by Constellation Theatre Company performing at Source Theatre, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC (between 14th and T). Tickets range from $20 to $45, with promos available on certain themed nights, like Pride Night (11/2) or Zillennial Night (10/26). Purchase tickets online or by calling the Box Office at 202-204-7741.
First responders, active or retired military personnel, teachers, and students are eligible for
a 50% discount on regularly priced tickets. Visit ConstellationTheatre.org/special-offers for discount codes and more information.
COVID Safety: Masking is optional on all shows except Saturday matinees. See Constellation’s entire Company Safety Plan here.
By Virginia Woolf, Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Mary Myers (Orlando), Edmée – Marie Faal (Sasha/Chorus), Alan Naylor (Queen Elizabeth/Chorus), Christian Mo ntgomery (Marmaduke/Chorus), and Arika Thames (Archduchess Harriett/Chorus).
Madalaina D’Angelo (Orlando), Ben Lauer (Queen Elizabeth/Marmaduke/Chorus), Tierra Burke (Sasha/ Archduchess Harriett/Chorus)
DESIGN & PRODUCTION
Nick Martin (Director), Sarah Beth Hall (Scenic Designer), Kitt Crescenzo (Costume Designer), Venus Gulbranson (Lighting Designer), Madeline Oslejsek (Sound Designer), Amy Kellett (Props Designer), and Sarah Beth Oppenheim (Movement and Intimacy Director), Francesca Chilcote (Associate Director), Tori Schuchmann (Production Stage Manager), Hansin Arvind (Assistant Stage Manager), Damien Shard (Wardrobe).