Assistant Opinion & Editorial Editor
F&M’s theatre, dance, and film department (TDF) presented Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, adapted for the stage by playwright Sarah Ruhl, this weekend. Directed by Elena R. “Ellie” Heyman, visiting assistant professor of theatre, and featuring an all-student cast, the play centered around themes of love and identity, both lost and found, as one noble(wo)man leads a quest for purpose that spans centuries, continents, and even genders.
Ruhl’s play was originally based on Woolf’s whimsical novel, Orlando: A Biography, a biography-style spoof often regarded by many as an extended love letter from Woolf to the noblewoman Vita Sackville-West.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl is hardly a stranger to theater or even to F&M. She visited the College in February as the 2013 Lapine Family Distinguished Dramatist, when she presented a talk entitled “Essays I Won’t Write” and even met with the cast of Heyman’s production.
Generally viewed as one of American theater’s most distinguished mid-career playwrights, Ruhl includes in her list of works The Clean House, winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2004, as well as In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), a 2010 Tony Award nominee for Best New Play and yet another finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ruhl was also awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes referred to as a “genius grant,” in 2006.
It would hardly be a stretch to attach the word “genius” to Orlando. Ruhl’s play weaves itself in and out of five centuries as it follows the life of one Orlando, played by Rebecca French ’16, over the course of his / her life of budding and broken relationships, confused, quiet tuggings toward a greater need to conquer something, as well as his / her sudden, unexplainable shift from a him into a her.
Though Orlando begins as a young nobleman writing under an oak tree, he soon finds himself a member of the Royal Court, coasting in on his “shapely legs” and inadvertently romancing an elderly Queen Elizabeth I, played by Charlotte Brooks ’15. Orlando himself is soon seduced, however, as the vaguely androgynous Russian princess Sasha, played by Gabrielle Woods ’16, literally comes skating into town. The two elope to London, and Orlando leaves the precocious little Euphrosyne, Kristi Thomson ’14, at the altar.
But all too soon, and just as easily, Orlando himself is left alone as Sasha hops aboard a Russian barge heading for her frosty homeland. Life moves for the lovelorn lad as he dodges the embrace of a lusty duchess (or is she a duke?), played by Kentrell Loftin ’16, flees into the wild nightlife of Constantinople, experiences a rather shocking, random sex change, and returns to his native England freshly a her. She falls into a state of despondency, fretting over her glaringly naked left ring finger, and, in due time, also into the embrace of the sailor Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine Esquire, Alan Wu ’16, as she lives on through centuries and centuries as each of her various identities.
The elaborate play was framed by an even more elaborate set. It sent the cast scurrying about all corners of the Schnader Theater at Roschel, and featured elements such as a human clock-pendulum, some seriously acrobatic rope-work, and an inventive use of members of the cast as set pieces themselves. Thomson explained that the element of space worked together with the story of the play.
“This show worked a lot with the compression and extension of time, so by using the amazing space we had, we began by exploring different ways to use the theater for each and every scene,” Thomson said. “The theater became our playground of exploration and it essentially became our space.”
Indeed, it would seem to Thomson, and perhaps, to those who also explored with Orlando, that both the theater and the play were perfect for exploration and adventure.
“We wanted to share the gift of storytelling, the theme that love transcends gender and time, and that we all, no matter how old we may be, what our gender may be, or who we are, are always searching for a sense of identity,” Thomson said. “So through discovering that in this play we were all parts of Orlando, we realized that everyone has many different ‘selves’ throughout life.”
Questions? Email Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org.