Fort Worth — Why is Stage West’s production of Orlando reminding me of The Big Bang Theory and Auntie Mame? The Big Bang link is easy—it’s the opening collage of the TV show. In both Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography and this quick-flowing stage adaptation, whole centuries flash before our eyes so fast we can’t quite keep up. “Wait!” we cry. “What?”
The Mame connection takes a beat to click in: it’s that famous quote “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” No chance of anyone starving here: In this playful time- and gender-bending adventure story, Woolf makes sure her Orlando finds a way to do and have it all—or at least as much as he (and later she) can grab in a wild-ride lifetime that begins in Elizabethan days and ends in 1920s London.
What, what? Yes, you heard right. Orlando (a robust, prettily boyish Anastasia Muñoz) starts life as a young Elizabethan nobleman, a love-prone fellow as open-hearted and impetuous as the Orlando of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. He catches the eye of a très femme Queen Elizabeth (Mark Shum, a miracle of dainty hand gesture), rises at court, and flirts with a tittering gaggle of girls (Nick Moore, Stephen Rosenberger and Shum in only one of many riotous configurations as the “Chorus”). Time flies: Orlando goes in and out of favor with the monarchy, falls for the Russian princess Sasha (a dark-voiced and comically broody Katherine Bourne), takes a gig as the ambassador to Constantinople. That’s where he, falling into a deep sleep, awakens (dude!) as a she, the beautiful Lady Orlando.
Published in the same year British women got the vote, Woolf’s rollicking novel was an international sensation. By her own account, Woolf wrote it at the speed of light (with possible stops for tea)—and that’s reflected in this fleet, light-footed adaptation by playwright Sarah Ruhl (Eurydice, The Clean House). Ruhl has cheerfully thrown great chunks of incident and character into the Thames: there’s no way to get every bit of Woolf’s wildly inventive story onstage. But there’s plenty of the good stuff left, especially in the first half—the second act seems a bit Spark-notey at times—to give audiences a savory, satisfying taste of the original.
The production is directed with verve by Garret Storms and Jim Covault; the costumes by Michael Robinson/Dallas Costume Shoppe are nicely period, and occasionally gorgeous (Orlando’s “sea” skirt is simply loverly). Covault’s set design of stationary/rolling platforms and stairs, crammed from below with the flotsam and jetsam of the ages (Lynn Lovett’s set décor) is a charming clutter.
The best thing about Ruhl’s adaptation is the simplest: she wisely brings Woolf’s narrative voice into the play. There’s not much direct dialogue in the novel; it’s all description of what happens: droll, dry, satirical. Most of the play’s “dialogue,” then, is actually narration spoken directly to the audience by the actors—who are describing their own roles, using Woolf’s own words—and it’s just as sparkly and fun as it should be. (The absence of that narrative voice sank the too-heavy 1992 film version with Tilda Swinton.)
The three-actor Chorus should also be cited as a special-effects unit. In addition to playing sailors, officials, actresses, servants, mysterious Romanians (Rosenberger in a funny turn), and fluttering fiancées (Moore as a young soprano is priceless), they can, in an instant, come together to become interesting objects; a noisy car on a modern London street, complete with “ah-oo-ga,” takes best of show.
Orlando is fascinated by her new body and the things she can make men do, and frustrated by the new rules and limits that surround her. But this lady is something of a tramp—a free-spirited adventurer and rule-dismisser—and through the 17th, the 18th and into the 19th centuries, Muñoz keeps her brisk, slightly boyish manner and remains very much Orlando, showing us how big, how free our lives might be if we thought less of classifications and categories—about sex, class, money, duty—and most of all, love. Orlando doesn’t entirely ignore the “spirit of the age” in her long life; overwhelmed by the Victorian edict that all women must marry, she rushes out to find a husband in the 19th century—but chooses a man who is so much a kindred spirit that the two lovers keep asking one another in astonishment: “Are you positive you aren’t a woman/man?”
Woolf’s tale was inspired by her onetime lover Vita Sackville-West, a charismatic, cross-dressing socialite whose freewheeling style embodied Woolf’s belief that intelligence and creativity aren’t male or female—just the best things about humanity. Woolf was raised a proper Victorian, so had to rebel by loving Shakespeare and the lusty Elizabethans; it’s no accident that Orlando’s adventures begin back in that day. After all, who created more "Orlandos" than Shakespeare—male and female characters who transcend our ideas of gender in wonderful and surprising ways? Think of the manly ferocity of Beatrice or Lady Macbeth, the sensitivity of Richard II and Hamlet.
Orlando is a fun frolic that stays true to what one writer calls “the most joyful” of Virginia Woolf’s books, a story that calls us to live our lives to the full. If there’s a moral to it all—and Woolf might have laughed at the thought—it might be that even if you have a few centuries to play with, life is still short—and there isn’t a moment to lose.