Exploring both sides of the spectrum
‘Orlando’ attempts to walk the fine line between satire and tangents, but often devolves into boring monologues
Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf
Play adaptation by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by A. Nora Long
Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Feb. 23–March 25
We return once again to the Lyric Stage to see the first production of the season, Orlando, a story about a poet that wakes up one morning to find himself metamorphosed into a woman. The play walks a tightrope as the beats alternate between biting satire and sluggish story points.
First starting off in the Elizabethan Era, Orlando opens up on a bright sunny day with the titular youth running around unabashedly displaying his masculinity. He duels with imaginary opponents but retreats to the shade of a familiar tree to work on his magnum opus, The Oak Tree. I quickly saw that Orlando was truly the epitome of what Woolf (and Ruhl, in her adaptation for stage) thought of manhood: head-strong and arrogant.
The plot quickly accelerates as the Queen herself arrives to incorporate Orlando into her court. From then on, plot points start occurring in rapid succession. He falls in love with a Russian princess named Sasha; eventually, when she proves to be unfaithful, he leaves for Constantinople as an ambassador. He finds himself in utter confusion one day. Waking up from a deep sleep, Orlando discovers that he has been transformed into a woman.
If one thing can be said of Ruhl’s play, and Woolf's story, it is that Orlando is one of the first modern attempts to examine gender. However, it does so by beating you over the head with its discoveries. The play proves to be very blunt with what it has to say rather than carefully guiding the audience to make their own discoveries.
Orlando finds herself to be immortal, giving the perfect platform for a fleshed out argument on how gender truly affects a human being. Of course, this would be perfect if the point wasn’t already established at the start of the first act. The first few times that Orlando launches into a discussion on gender, I was enthralled by what she had to say about the issue. As the play progressed, these once captivating monologues became repetitive. Orlando’s words still held the same weight, but the contribution of each piece seemed neither to add onto the progression of the plot nor to advance the audience’s understanding.
On the other hand, the stagecraft is something to behold. The director, A. Nora Long, “says the production captures the sweep of the story without requiring elaborate settings” (Byrne 2018). Rather than using a variety of props to showcase the spirit of each age, Orlando manages to find a work-around by following tight choreography to really capture the time period. Additionally, the production possesses a lighting design that brings modern stagecraft to an old production. When the characters skate on the ice for the Frost Fair of 1608, the stage illuminates their path. As years leap into the 20th century, the stage glows with the commotion of the big city.
Overall, Orlando is a very enjoyable experience, albeit an overly drawn out one. Merit has to be given to the inventiveness of the production staff as they modernized this dust-riddled play for the 21st century. The bond that the ensemble shares and the incredible acting prowess of the lead, Caroline Lawton, are also commendable. However, the play still trudges through plot beats at times, drawing out an already outlandish story. It never seems to find the right mixture of comedy and biting commentary. In the end, Orlando remains a very relevant play in this era of LGBT issues.
Correction: A previous version of this article failed to credit playwright Sarah Ruhl for adapting Virginia Woolf's story for the stage.