Wellesley Summer Theatre Company Artistic Director Nora Hussey has assembled an excellent ensemble of Equity, student and alumna performers, whose split-second, comedic timing astounds and delights theatergoers in Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s timeless gender-bending play, “Orlando”.
Woolf’s novel, “Orlando: A Biography,” was published in October 1928, and is considered to be semi-biographical, based on her alleged affair with female lover, Vita Sackville-West. Woolf set the stage for future, daring female writers, and also transgender and gender studies.
Ruhl’s stage adaptation premiered in New York City in 2010, and a film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton in the leading role premiered in 1992.
Although Woolf’s novel was written in 1928, it’s even more timely and relevant today. Last Friday night, TV news program “20-20” spotlighted a married couple with two young biological sons. The husband was born a female and his pretty wife was born a male. After having conventional sex, the pregnant husband, (who’s still a biological female), delivered each offspring naturally, confounding their friends and neighbors. The newscast will hopefully lead to public awareness and improved tolerance.
At Wellesley College’s Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, theatergoers are seated on both sides of the small, black-and-white swirled stage floor, bordered length-wise by two huge gilt-framed mirrors, creating a bird’s-eye close-up. Five of the six actors portray multiple roles, save Catherine LeClair, who delivers a daunting performance in the lead role of gender-changing, 300-year time traveler, Orlando. LeClair has mucho macho, comedic dash and derring-do as the handsome, young, adventurous, wannabe poet with writer’s block, who later metamorphoses into a refined, 30-year-old duchess, after a mysterious, seven-day trance.
Throughout four centuries and a series of encounters, Orlando fruitlessly tries to write his/her poem, “The Oak Tree”.
The cast is continuously in the audience’s view, discreetly changing costumes in front of either mirror or nearby, to insure their meticulous timing. Action, character and plot changes occur frequently, rapidly, and skillfully. For example, the inimitable John Davin changes from a servant in Queen Elizabeth I’s court to the hot-blooded, mighty monarch herself, (and several other subsidiary roles), with a quick flip of a vest, a frilly apron and cap, regal gown, and pearl-edged, curly red wig. Woody Gaul is funny and entertaining in his head-spinning, multiple roles, as are John Kinsherf and Wellesley alumna Vicky George.
Emily Woods Hogue‘s majestic costumes recreate the resplendent brocade of Elizabeth’s reign, along with rudimentary rank-and-file, vests and tights; Constantinople’s jewel-hued, gilt-edged garb, Romania’s dark-cloaks, and more, tracing Orlando’s time travel into the fast-paced, horseless carriage, telephone-ringing, conservative, figure-forming fashion of the 1920s.
In an early, romantic ice skating scene (charmingly choreographed by Sophori Ngin), Elisabeth Yancey as teen-ager Orlando’s first love, Russian princess Sasha, is a dream-like vision in her furry, white hat and clothing. She’s Orlando’s ideal of bravery, poetry in motion, youth and enthusiasm, while he’s the most sought-after lord, purported to have the most beautiful legs in the kingdom - for a gentleman.
Orlando also encounters an offensive, stalking, gender-bending archduchess, whom he flees, taking the position of ambassador to Constantinople. Later, reborn female Orlando re-encounters the annoying archduchess, who’s equally enamored and offensive in her revealed personality - an uncloseted archduke.
Orlando ultimately finds self-actualization as a female and true love with tuxedoed, gender-bending sea captain, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, and finally achieves her lifetime goal in the 1920s - to publish her poem, “The Oak Tree”.
During intermission, two women from Cambridge enthusiastically praised the production, and wondered why more theatergoers weren’t there. Good question.
Perhaps it was the severe cold weather. Maybe folks don’t know about it. But now, you do - so don’t miss out on the fun.
BOX INFO: Two-act comedy, Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” appearing through Feb. 2, Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays, at 2 and 7 p.m., Sundays, at 2 p.m., also Feb. 2, at 7 p.m. with Wellesley Summer Theatre Company at Wellesley College’s Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, 106 Central St., Wellesley. Tickets, $20; students, seniors, $10. Reservations are required. Call 781-283-2000. For disability services, call Jim Wice at 781-283-2434 or visit www.wellesleysummertheatre.com.