By Kendra Jones

Feathers, sequins, tulle, lots of tulle, so much tulle. The fluidity of gender and defying social norms take center stage in Sarah Ruhl‘s adaptation of Orlando. Characters transition between wearing heels, boots, blazers, skirts, and elegant dresses throughout the performance. Orlando (Taylor Mac) questions the same theme as he gains an understanding of the world. Centuries into his life, Orlando notes how change of clothes can change a person: clothes wear us—how the world sees us, how we see others.

Virginia Woolf said that Orlando: A Biography, was meant to be a joke, that she wrote it quicker than any other of her work, and it was such fun to write. Ruhl, too, has seemed to maintain this fun, playful tone of her adaptation of Orlando, as many of the soliloquies and movement on stage lean towards overly comical–in a fabulous way.

Directed and choreographed by Will Davis, Orlando, resulted in sparks of laughter—unashamed—often a single audience member bursts at the end of a line, like we are all jack-in-the-boxes, popping out of our seats. Like the comedy and witty dialogue, it was happily unexpected, and frequent. Sometimes, I didn’t know in the second why I found a line so funny, but I realized it was the way dialogue was spoken, the movements, the reactions, Orlando’s interactions with his lovers. The casting allows humor through very opposite characters playing those presented through text: Queen Elizabeth (Nathan Lee Graham) being written as an old woman but appearing on stage as an exuberant, spirited highness, arguably barely old enough to be a “mum” to Orlando but rather that of a lover.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Minimal props place focus on the costuming. Simple projections, such as paintings from centuries past, are used not only to support the ages we are placed in but draw laughter as Orlando interacts with the screen. The simple comedy of a tiny, frail decorative tree representing a great oak tree under which Orlando writes, longing to perfectly describe “greeny-green grass. ”

The story line of Orlando took more of a back seat than I had anticipated, but I welcomed the comedy and playfulness to lead me through theElizabethan era to present day. The soliloquies and the way characters play off one another is so Shakespearean and so intentional. We watch Orlando discover themselves as an individual and poet.

When Orlando is still boyish, he meets Shakespeare while the famous writer tries to write a beautiful line of poetry that will shape his career. We meet the first of Orlando’s line of affairs. While Orlando is engaged to Euphrosyne, he skiis through the Elizabethan era, after meeting a Russian figure, Sasha (Janice Amaya). “Melon, pineapple, olive tree, emerald, fox in the snow—” Orlando shouts at Sasha, “all in the space of three seconds.” Orlando is not sure at first whether Sasha is a man or woman but he is inextricably drawn to Sasha in this century, and the next, and the next. While he questions her virtuity and what a woman should be, he blindly trusts her.

Orlando too, in another century, will demonstrate the deceitfulness of a woman.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Somehow, these five hundred years still feel as though it’s been a single lifetime, each century being a chapter of his life—boyhood and youth, a young man and a loss of innocence, heartbreak and failure, a still-evolving human coming to terms with themselves and how the world operates. A wise adult who has experienced love and loss and acceptance of their body, and understanding of expectations and shortcomings. Orlando searches for the motivation and time to write a beautiful line of poetry, and the effective, beautiful, comedic soliloquies serve as the poetry that Orlando desires to transcribe.

There’s always tomorrow–we’re always telling ourselves…Orlando’s “tomorrow” of finally crafting the perfect poem transforms into years, centuries…

Orlando enters the 17th century alone, and he writes off women; he is more motivated than ever to write, but we understand the struggle of finding the perfect string of words when pressures of life intrude. “Are we so made that we have to take death in small doses daily or we could not go on with the business of living?”

After a long sleep, Orlando wakes as a woman. Her physical appearance remains the same, but she comes to understand the penalties and priviledges of each gender, realizing the unfair expectations of a woman once she is in the presence of a man.

Despite Orlando’s gender, it is still a woman–Sasha–whom she loves.

Thinking of her past life, Orlando begins to cry—and allows herself–as this is what women are to do. Orlando identifies that the punishment of being a woman in the 18th century is equal to being dead: in either case, Orlando cannot own property—so her house is no longer hers. She finally grasps life, recognizes its shortcomings, unfairness.

Photo by Joan Marcus

An archduke (Lisa Kron)–once an archduchess in a previous century–is obsessed with Orlando, but Orlando only wants to push him away. She uses the archduke’s admiration to deceive him, as women have done to Orlando for centuries–The priviledge of a woman!

As Orlando lapses into the 19th century, the societal norm of marriage between a man and a woman challenges her to push against this expectation, and she desires to fall in love with nature instead of a man; but, after coming to know a new man for a comically short length of time, she becomes engaged. Through this relationship, Orlando realizes men can be sentimental, and vice versa…that both man and woman could be similar creatures if they allow themselves to push against societal expectations.

Orlando, welcomes us into an entire life of a woman-born-a-boy, written beneath the comically tiny oak tree planted on “greeny-green grass.”

We have a variety of selves to be—we grow into each one, often wish we could return to those we’ve grown from. We may never be satisified, may never do what we set out to do or receive what we had always wished we would. We are hundreds of things. We are the memories others have, we are the hopes for ourselves. Orlando wishes to be a poet, of all things—but doubts stop her.

We see a writer—but ultimately, we see a human with a thousand lives lived—a human with many more versions of themselves to come. Ruhl’s writing allows the audience to be drawn onto the stage–that if we don’t care as much about Orlando’s affairs, we at least care how he carries each one into the next version of themselves.

Written by Spotlight Resident, Sarah Ruhl; Directed and choreographed by Will Davis.

WITH: Taylor Mac (Orlando), Janice Amaya (Sasha/Chorus), Nathan Lee Graham (Queen Elizabeth/Chorus), Lisa Kron (Archduke/Archduchess/Chorus), Jo Lampert (Grimsditch/Chorus), Rad Pereira (Marmaduke/Chorus), and TL Thompson (Sea Captain/Chorus).

CREATIVE TEAM: Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Design), Oana Botez (Costume Design), Barbara Samuels (Lighting Design), Brendan Aanes (Sound Design and Composition), Ann C. James (Intimacy Coordinator), Matt Carlin (Props Supervisor), and Kasson Marroquin (Production Stage Manager).

Adapted from Virginia Woolf’s novel, and called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” Orlando was written by Woolf for her lover, Vita Sackville-West. Performances will take place at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W 42nd St) in The Irene Diamond Stage. Tickets can be purchased here.