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Review: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando once felt risky and provocative, but this production feels stuffy and staid

Sarah Afful (Orlando) and Maev Beaty (Sasha) in Orlando.

Courtesy of Soulpepper

  • Orlando
  • Directed by: Katrina Darychuk
  • Adapted by: Sarah Ruhl
  • Starring: Sarah Afful, Maev Beaty, John Jarvis, Craig Lauzon, Alex McCooeye
  • At the Young Centre for Performing Arts in Toronto

rating

Virginia Woolf thought of her 1928 novel Orlando as a kind of writerly vacation – a pleasure-seeking break from her experiments in feeling and form. Relaying the amorous adventures of a time-travelling, gender-fluid hero, the novel reads like a burst of linguistic energy. Its exuberant sentences have an air of the rococo, full of descriptive ornament and syntactical digression.

What’s a dramatist to do with a book that comes to life in its effervescent prose? Is there a powerful theatrical analogy for Woolf’s unbridled writing? American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s 2003 Orlando, which opened at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto on Wednesday night, doesn’t seem too concerned with finding a unique way to transform text to theatre. It’s the sort of adaptation that might better be described as a clever abbreviation, rather than a visionary interpretation.

Ruhl’s modest reworking of the novel makes a director’s job more difficult, particularly if that director wants to do some real interpretive work. Still, it’s easy to see why Soulpepper, and director Katrina Darychuk, were attracted to Orlando, with its timely themes of gender, identity and sex. But rather than zero in on these topics, and pull out their potentially powerful relevance, the production is pervaded by a feeling of neutrality. There’s a sense that Darychuk has assumed that the imaginative groundwork has already been laid and that all she needs to do to bring the novel to life is tell the story.

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John Jarvis, Alex McCooeye, Craig Lauzon and Sarah Afful in Orlando.

Courtesy of Soulpepper

Trouble is, Woolf, like other modernists, wasn’t much interested in stories. Orlando only works as a novel in the way it exercises aesthetics and form. It’s written like a mock-biography, with the narrator self-consciously speculating about truth versus hearsay, about what should or shouldn’t be divulged. All this modernist destabilization of authority is taken out of the play, which uses three actors (John Jarvis, Craig Lauzon and Alex McCooeye) as narrators. They circle the thrust stage and take turns speaking Woolf’s text. The effect is flat and democratic – all the unreliable, idiosyncrasy of Woolf’s single-voiced narrator is gone.

The play begins with Orlando (Sarah Afful) as a nobleman in 16th-century England. He catches the eye of the aged Queen Elizabeth (played by Jarvis in a red wig). Taking an immediate, lascivious interest in the young man, the Queen proposes a game that, from a contemporary perspective, looks exploitative; Orlando must kiss the decades-older woman no matter what the outcome. But we’re given no sense of how Orlando feels about this harassment. The politics are glossed over; it’s a scenario without stakes. This feeling of a story that moves forward without conflict or resolution might summarize the production as a whole.

The novel is known for being sexually ahead of its time partly because of the way it makes gender-identity irrelevant to attraction. Today, Orlando might be considered pan-sexual, a person whose sexual taste transcends any cis/trans norms. The relationship at the novel’s centre is the romance between Orlando and the Russian princess Sasha (Maev Beaty), whom the hero originally assumes is a man. (Woolf wrote the title-character with her lover Vita Sackville-West in mind). Though Woolf’s ornate prose keeps anything explicit at bay, there’s still some really sexy writing here that suggests all kinds of sensual imagery.

Sarah Afful’s performance becomes increasingly rich and wry as the story goes on.

Courtesy of Soulpepper

Yet Darychuk approaches this romance with a Victorian reserve. There are no imagistic risks and little chemistry or corporeality between Afful and Beaty. Their sexual awakening has them fully clothed and momentarily entangled; it’s all very quaint and tame. Then, in the decisive moment when Orlando wakes up a woman in 18th-century Constantinople, the effect is anticlimactic, with Afful merely crossing the stage wrapped in a sheet.

Afful’s performance becomes increasingly rich and wry as the story goes on and there’s a funny turn from the compelling McCooey as a Romanian aristocrat. Gillian Gallow’s costumes invoke the textured splendour of the prose – and her decision to have Sasha soar well beyond Woolf’s own era, dressing her in the final scene like a 21st-century urbanite, attempts to locate the story in the here and now. But there’s an ongoing sense of lost opportunity when it comes to bringing Woolf’s images to life. Lorenzo Savoini’s minimalist design doesn’t manage to titillate our imaginations or transport us very far. Darychuk’s staging often looks muddled and can’t suggest the magic of travelling through time.

The underlying question is: What is this production about? Instead of distilling some key idea about love, sex, gender or time, there’s a mechanical feeling to the whole enterprise. Surely Woolf’s sensual tale of a transgendered person unmoored in time once felt risky and provocative. Here it looks stuffy and staid.

Orlando continues at the Young Centre until July 29.

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