Senior Staff Writer James Perry and Deputy Arts Editor Grace Novarr attended the Barnard College Department of Theatre’s production of Orlando by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Ran Xia.
As audience members filed into the intimate Minor Latham Playhouse in Milbank Hall for the Barnard College Department of Theatre’s production of Orlando, the actors were already on stage, strumming instruments, conversing quietly with each other, and laughing as they looked out into the theater. Indeed, only a dimming of lights signaled the start of the play. This blurring of the boundaries between actor and character was an apt precursor to the show’s disregard for stagnancy and strict boundaries. Fluidity and transformation were the themes of the night; throughout the show, actors played multiple characters, set pieces morphed from one thing to another, and, indeed, the very story defied categorization, sprawling across centuries and inhabiting a fantastical reality that mirrored historical events while transforming them into murky, dreamlike fragments.
The play, directed by Ran Xia, is an adaptation by playwright Sarah Ruhl of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same name. The plot follows a young nobleman, Orlando (Maya Weed, CC ‘22), who lives in Elizabethan England. One day, Orlando mysteriously becomes a woman and lives the rest of her life (which turns out to span over 400 years) that way. Over the course of Orlando’s long lifetime, there are numerous love affairs. As a teenager, he is Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite (though, as he remarks in an aside to the audience, she smells like a cupboard); as an adult, he falls deeply and dangerously in love with the mysterious Russian princess Sasha (Rivka Keshen, BC ‘22); after returning to England as a woman, she enters an uncomfortable romance with the cross-dressing Archduke (Jalen Ford, CC ‘24), and finally has a transformative whirlwind of passion with the elusive sea captain Shelmerdine (Thomas Baker, CC ‘22), whom she marries “in the spirit of the age.”
In addition to these relationships, the primary love affair in Orlando is with language. Whereas the novel Orlando is regarded as Woolf’s treatise on the history of English literature (and, of course, gender), the play isn’t bogged down by heavy references only English majors would understand. Instead, it transcends the source material’s shortcomings and leans further into the more profound and meaningful themes of Woolf’s work. Orlando, as we meet him, is a (rather incompetent) poet, whose quest to find meaning in life is refracted through the struggle of expressing that meaning in words. Sitting under a tree (a repurposed spiral staircase) during the first minutes of the play, Orlando contemplates the “greeny greeny green” of the grass, and the chorus coyly turns to us to state that “green in nature is one thing; green in literature is quite another.”
In this production, however, where words fail, the magic of theater steps in. Under Xia’s direction, the genre of the play became a character itself. The show never strove for realism; rather, it leaned into its inherent fantasy and whimsy. The set and costumes were also astounding and contributed to the dreamlike aura that characterized the play. A notable moment came when Queen Elizabeth (Surya Buddharaju, CC ‘23) touched Orlando’s shoulder: this was represented by a giant papier-mâché hand, supported by two members of the chorus, hovering over Orlando, while the Queen, wearing a huge golden collar and a hoop skirt, stood on top of an elevated platform. This golden collar was suspended from the ceiling, and it later served as a sun, and then a clock. This multi-purposing of set pieces was nothing short of brilliant. Several moments of clever set design in the play elicited delighted gasps from the audience, as the chorus members made shadow puppets and an image of a horse was cast onto the background with nothing but a bunch of parasols. A model house towards the back of the stage that represented Orlando’s home during the first half became a stage within a stage as its front hinged open.
Weed as Orlando was perfectly cast; she successfully embodied a cheeky young Elizabethan nobleman falling in love for the first time, yet was no less convincing as a 19th-century woman marrying a sea captain. Her character spoke in the third person about herself, as the rest of the chorus did; during Orlando’s first address to the audience as a boy of 16, he and the chorus place an emphasis on his gender; “HE—HE! He—for there could be no doubt of his sex…” Far from seeming jarring, this emphasized Orlando’s detachment from the world and highlighted her struggle to develop a sense of self. Ford was also highly enjoyable as the tittering Archduchess, who is revealed to actually be an Archduke, and Keshen, as the seductive and mysterious Sasha, was delightful.
The costuming, designed by Micaela Hecht (BC ‘22), was simple yet effective. The chorus wore a simple base layer in white and muted colors, shrugging on jackets and sweaters or stepping into hoop skirts to assume the roles of different characters. Orlando’s costume had the same function—he appears on stage as a boy in shorts and high socks, lets down his hair as he ages, and assumes a coat, and after waking up a woman, she pulls on three layers of skirts and finally dons long pants in her maturity with the coming of modernity. Surprisingly, the costuming was able to reflect the numerous ages and replicate the silhouettes of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries’ silhouettes with completely modern clothing.
Ultimately, Orlando was a celebration of fluidity: of gender, of time, of the genre of theater. This particular production combined the passionate originality of Woolf’s original text, the absurdist inventiveness of Ruhl’s adaptation, and the fresh talent of Barnard/Columbia actors. Perhaps the defining moment of the play came when Orlando turns to her new fiancée Shelmerdine and declares, “You’re a woman, Shel!” at the same time as he cries, “You’re a man, Orlando!” Neither character is offended by these misperceptions—each is delighted to be recognized for the multitudes they contain. Despite the fact that society’s understanding of gender has radically transformed since the character of Orlando was created, the truth at the heart of the story is, like Orlando herself, timeless: no one is merely one thing. Magical transformations or not, the categorizations that society enforces are inherently limiting, and the best characters—and plays—transcend those categorizations, as this production of Orlando certainly did.
Orlando via Playbill