September 25, 2010

"Orlando" Both Charms and Confounds

As regular readers of B&Me know, downtown theater is not my natural habitat.  So it’s been an adventurous week for me. In the space of four days, I saw the sensational revival of Angels in America at Signature Theatre, not a downtown company but Tony Kushner’s masterpiece will always be a proud standard bearer of the downtown aesthetic (I’ll say much more about this production after its official opening); and I saw Flemish director Ivo van Hoven’s iconoclastic remix of The Little Foxes at New York Theatre Workshop (click here to read my review of that one); and Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel "Orlando," which opened for a four-week run at Classic Stage Company on Thursday night.

It may have been too much downtown for me. The notes I took while watching Orlando are so badly scribbled that I can’t decipher them. My mental images of the play dissolve into dream-like vapors.  Which, ironically, may be appropriate. 

Woolf’s novel, a tribute to her lover, the aristocrat and poet Vita Sackville-West, is an elusive fabulation.  It recounts the 400-year life of a nobleman born in the 16th century who over the years transforms into a woman but never ages.  The character Orlando has lovers of both sexes, including Queen Elizabeth I. The book is consider a landmark in feminist writing, gender studies and modernist fiction.  All of which makes it an obvious challenge for a playwright.

Ruhl, of course, is no stranger to feminism, gender issues or modernist writing.  She began working on her Orlando 12 years ago and, according to folks far more literate than I, has remained faithful to Woolf's text.  Maybe, some say, too faithful.  Ruhl has employed the story theater approach to tell Orlando’s story, which means there’s a lot of narration, with characters spouting exposition and referring to themselves in the third person (click here to watch an interview in which she talks about the making of the play).

The language is beautiful but, at least for me, also tedious after a while.  The saving grace is that this production, directed by Rebecca Taichman, is gorgeous. Allen Moyer has devised a spare set that is elegant in its understatement and witty in its carefully chosen touches of whimsy: his miniature houses, miniature boats and even miniature tea cups made me smile each time I saw them. As did Anita Yavich’s lovely costumes and Annie-B Parson’s charming choreography. Christopher Akerlind’s supple lighting shows them all off to good effect.

The cast is equally fine, lead by Francesca Faridany, radiant as the title character, and the downtown darling David Greenspan, who brings some much needed humor to the proceedings in a variety of roles including Queen Elizabeth (click here to read an interview with him).

I'm not sure what to make of Orlando.  My mind wandered throughout the two-hour performance. But each time it returned, it saw something it liked.

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