Crossing time and gender in Woolf’s droll quest

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(c) Michael Brosilow

Amy J. Carle as the poet Orlando, with a chorus of trees, at Court Theatre. 

Review: “Orlando,” adapted from Virginia Woolf by Sarah Ruhl
Court Theatre, Chicago

What a thorny and enigmatic subject is the life-long process that leads toward human understanding and indeed self-knowledge. In her fanciful and yet serious fictional-biography “Orlando,” Virginia Woolf suggested that meandering pathway of discovery, of comprehending the world wholly, through the eyes of a woman as well as a man, might require a good deal more than  a lifetime. It occupies her hero for three and a half centuries.

There’s something downright hilarious about such a proposition, and hilarity is the buoying stream that carries Court Theatre’s treatment of Woolf’s “Orlando” as re-imagined by playwright Sarah Ruhl. Court’s infectious production is a theatrical arabesque, a commedia dell’ arte romp that manages never to lose sight of Woolf’s substantial theme even as it holds characters and circumstances up to riotous caricature.

Smacking of Henry Fielding’s 18th century novel “Tom Jones” and its madcap vicissitudes of a foundling cast upon the world, Woolf’s 1928 “biography” takes Orlando from young manhood as a poet at the English court of Elizabeth I through wormholes of time to the courts of James I and Charles II, then forward through centuries of adventures in life and love until he lands in the present, meaning 1928. There, his race run, Orlando’s remarkable life comes to its end – at age 36!

Readers familiar with Woolf’s book will wonder when I’m going to get around to another detail: Somewhere about mid-arc on his trajectory through time, Orlando finds himself in Constantinople, where he falls asleep for several days, and wakes up a woman. Thus the comedy becomes recharged as Orlando suddenly finds the boundless prerogatives and rewards of a man’s world, in which one can command armies and dispatch foes, transformed into the corseted province of women where the options devolve to pouring tea while struggling to do anything at all in the bondage of petticoats.

Ruhl’s bristling adaptation preserves the finesse of Woolf’s satiric wit, but just as important it also embraces the fullness of the novel’s perspective on humanity with all its warts and biases as well as its free will and its complex need for love. Court’s production, directed by Jessica Thebus, delivers Woolf’s message with rapier point and disarming facility.

Only two characters are played by specific actors, with a chorus of four men morphing into all the other roles and sometimes even serving as props and special effects.

As Orlando, Amy J. Carle offers a sympathetic portrait of a man tossed about on the high seas of circumstance, the toy of a queen, the momentary amusement of fickle hearts, the object of predatory – dare I say wolfish – lust. When suddenly he becomes she, Carle has great fun making Orlando fit (literally) into his new robes and deal with this new set of expectations, allowances and limits.

I confess I don’t grasp why Ruhl chose to single out one character from Orlando’s swirling centuries of encounters for specificity. The four choristers – Thomas J. Cox, Adrian Danzig, Kevin Douglas and Lawrence Grimm – switch bits of costumes and props to impersonate all but the one with irrepressible energy, impeccable precision and zany fluidity.

But Ruhl makes an exception for a Russian princess called Sasha, played with indulgently broad humor by Erica Elam. Sasha is the infatuation of Orlando’s life (as a man), and perhaps Ruhl wished to remove the comic mitigation of a guy in drag.

Collette Pollard’s spare set consists chiefly of ornate canopy beds that also serve as boats, with a cluster of chandeliers to lend the changing scenes an aura of continuity. Linda Roethke’s costumes are remarkable for how much they express by minimal means in the ever-changing characters of the chorus.

Through April 10. www.CourtTheatre.org. Call (773) 753-4472.     

 

          

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.