Nobleman Looks Like a Lady 


Written by Virginia Woolf
Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Taichman

"Nothing more quickly distorts time than contact with any of the arts," notes a member of the ensemble as Orlando nears completion of her poem, The Oak Tree, begun four centuries earlier. That line, phrased slightly differently and with immense thematic weight in Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel, plays for laughs in Sarah Ruhl's new stage adaptation of Orlando at Classic Stage Company (through October 17), though the delivery hardly diminishes its truth. Unlike the original satire, or the lush drama of the 1992 film adaptation, Ruhl, director Rebecca Taichman, and the tight cast of five turn Woolf's quasi-biographical fiction into high farce. The three men playing the parade of characters whom Orlando (Francesca Faridany) encounters during her gender-switching, century-hopping journey from Elizabethan England to 20th-century London—David Greenspan, Tom Nelis and Howard Overshown—skip nimbly between parts with the help of Annie-B Parson's playful choreography. Exaggerating national and historical stereotypes, addressing the audience while camping it up with each new character, the three men take on the air of co-conspirators speeding their protagonist toward her destiny, like Macbeth's three witches. The set, too, designed by Allen Moyer, leaves room for the swift passage of time, with a gold-bordered square of grass underfoot, and a similarly framed giant mirror hanging at an angle above. The whole production focuses our attention intently upon Orlando.

Ruhl doesn't make it easy on Faridany either, conserving much of Woolf's prose so that the characters often narrate the story while performing it—"tears streamed down Orlando's face," and so on. The British actress pulls it off superbly, though, overcoming the potentially distancing syntax to carry the audience with her over the centuries. She has an androgynous sweetness during Orlando's early days as a young nobleman in Queen Elizabeth I's (Greenspan, gleefully) court, turning bitter following the deceit of his lover Sasha (Annika Boras, draped in deep red against the otherwise white-clad cast) during the magical Great Frost sequence. The appeals of manhood explored and exhausted, Orlando, forever 36 years old, wakes from a one-week slumber transformed into a woman. Faridany grows into her new gender, but engages with its conventions (fashion, manners, marriage) knowingly and playfully. Here, Woolf and Ruhl's respective sensibilities reach a terrific correspondence. And both are endlessly curious cultural historians with strong feminist tendencies, taking up the thread of time, unraveling and twisting it to reveal and create new experiences, roles and situations for female characters in disparate periods. Both are expert distorters of time, so that when Orlando's four centuries are up, it hardly feels like two hours have passed.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)

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