All words: Landon Randolph
Pinning down a production like WSC Avant Bard’s “Orlando” at Theatre on the Run is a tricky proposition. It asks big questions like, “What makes you, you?” and “Why do you love whom you love?” then disarms you with a joke about performing cunnilingus on Queen Elizabeth.
The play centers around Orlando (Sara Barker), the play’s protean hero/heroine, who starts life as a young teenage boy in the 16th century attempting to write a poem about a tree, and ends it as a woman in the 20th century still struggling to find the right words describing the color of the tree’s leaves. In between, (s)he falls in love with a parade of characters in a variety of settings, and changes centuries faster than the cross-dressing chorus can change their shirts.
The whole thing has the feel of an intimate brunch with a cosmopolitan friend, with witty insights delivered alongside a knowing smirk and a raised eyebrow. That’s a remarkable achievement, since the play’s weighty subject matter is normally found only in the most earnest of conversations. Its alternately thoughtful and facetious tone owes a lot to Sarah Ruhl, who adapted Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name for the stage. She manages to preserve the acerbic humor and whimsical poetry of the author, and the result is a play that mixes the absurd, the fanciful, and the pithily beautiful into a heady realm where love and nature are bound only by the constraints of imagination.
The cast, given a minimalist set and a few basic props, has no problem bringing the world to life. Though Orlando undergoes several dramatic changes, Barker never loses the thread of the character, and ultimately all of the shifts feel purely cosmetic in nature. In any other production, that would be a deadly insult, but it isn’t here: (s)he remains the sympathetic person she starts the play as, though perhaps a little wiser. Sasha (Amanda Forstrom) is bewitching and enigmatic, and it’s easy to see why she’s Orlando’s first true love. The constant transitions in time and place require a parade of characters, and the direction by Amber Jackson as well as the excellent character work by the chorus keep the lyric energy of the piece flowing and the storyline clear—no mean feat.
It’s not often that you leave a play thinking, “That’s it. They nailed it. They said it all.” So often works that try to answer such titanic and primal questions such as this seem lamentable and maudlin failures. Just when you think it’s going to stray into the ream of the didactic and preachy, it sheers violently away, and leaves you with a fresh insight and a witty bon mot. It’s a mark of how excellent this play is that it never, not once, feels that way.