“For nothing was simply one thing.”
In Villanova’s Orlando the world is in defiance of singularity. Orlando (Sarah Stryker) is born a man, but spends a majority of her life as a woman. Sasha (Angela Longo), Orlando’s first love appears to be a boy on the ice, but reveals herself to be a woman. The company of actors (Tina Lynch, Kale A. Thompson, Amy Abrigo, Jay V. Kimberly, Sharese Salters, and Effie Kammer) defy expectations as well, playing men, women, animals, and plants. It is fitting then, that this production seems to blur the line between literary adaptation and a physical work of devised comedy. Sometimes this defiance of categorization works brilliantly and the creativity astounds: as when Orlando appears in shadow revealing herself to be a woman for the first time. Other times, the schtick distracts, and makes portions of the play hard to follow at best, tiresome at worse.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl has created an adaptation of the epic Virginia Woolf work that relies heavily on third person narration, sometimes delivered by Orlando and sometimes delivered by the company of six actors. This choice more often than not distances us from the work itself. Director James Ijames and company have tried to make sense of this feature by creating a play within a play structure; we are watching a troupe of actors enter the space and tell the story of Orlando. They work together to successfully evoke through movement (coached by Messapotamia Lefae) the different centuries that Orlando travels to (the Elizabethan age to the 20th Century). The ensemble simultaneously brings to mind a Shakespearean troupe and a queer, utopian collective.
Sarah Stryker stands out in the title role. Her transition of Orlando from impish boy poet to world weary feminist writer feels authentic. Her voice and body transform along with her character to demonstrate the differing performance expectations placed on Orlando depending on the social-historical context which he (and she) is placed in.
The production is lifted up by the vibrancy of its technical elements. The curiosity shop of a set, designed by Parris Bradley, is filled with furniture and frames and clocks and lamps. Jarold R. Forsyth’s lights help create some truly stunning stage pictures and are utilized to show the transition from candlelight to electric light bulbs to neon. The staging is often beautiful and and intentional but sometimes privileges the front of the thrust stage over the sides.
As Orlando journeys through genders and centuries, the pain and beauty of being a human in a body is explored with a vibrant commitment to the process of theater-making.
[Vasey Hall, Villanova Theatre, 800 East Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, PA] September 24-October 6, 2019; villanovatheatre.org/orlando