“Orlando” merry production explores gender stereotypes

By Ellen Booraem



STONINGTON — No, it’s not about the Orlando night club shootings. Yes, it’s fun.

But “Orlando,” the opening production of the Opera House Arts 2016 season, does temper its lively good humor with serious —and topical — questions about identity and sexuality, to say nothing of what it calls “the spirit of the age.” It’s helpful to our battered souls.

First produced in New York in 2010, “Orlando” is playwright Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 wry, fantastical novel about a young Elizabethan man released from the constraints of time and sexual identity.  We follow him from the reign of Elizabeth I into the 20th century — partway there, he goes to bed as England’s (male) ambassador to Constantinople and wakes up as a woman.

Orlando betrays or is betrayed by all manner of ladies and gentlemen before, at last, finding a love that transcends gender.

The play will be at OHA’s Burnt Cove Community Church through July 10.  Performances are Thursday through Sunday at 7 p.m.

This is a play that shouldn’t work. Most of the lines are taken verbatim from Woolf’s novel, which fortunately is her funniest and most accessible. The cast narrates the action as much as having real conversations, and you’d think that device would get old after a while.

It doesn’t, at least not in this production. Once you’re acclimated, the play just keeps getting more wonderful.  Partly that’s because the playwright was ruthless in culling out all but the best of Woolf’s lines and plot elements, setting them in a context that sharpens the humor.

But also critical is the blistering pace set by director Natalya Baldyga — 500 years in 90 minutes, including intermission! — coupled with a talented and crisply professional cast.

As Orlando, Elizabeth Anne Rimar is the only actor with one role. She is splendid, her mobile, expressive face keeping us with her as she skips across centuries and sexes.

We meet her Orlando as a sturdy, glowing 16-year-old boy poet in love with nature and fascinated by death. His transition to womanhood is lovely and telling, as the new Orlando gets used to the pleasures, annoyances and outright indignities of her new gender. She enjoys being cosseted by a sea captain on her voyage home but knows she could no longer rescue herself if she fell overboard in all those skirts.

She arrives home to discover that the court’s about to confiscate her estate on the grounds that she’s a) dead and b) a woman, “which amounts to much the same thing.”

Equally splendid is an inexhaustible “chorus” of three men and one woman, who narrate and play secondary roles regardless of gender. Their identical pink corsets and tights provide the underpinnings for a queen’s robes or a navvy’s jacket depending on the situation.

Jade Guerra is remarkable as Orlando’s chief female love and the man who is her eventual soul-mate, among other roles. Bari Robinson is deft and believable as courtly captain, trusted housekeeper, Shakespeare’s Moor of Venice, and a couple of ditsy society damsels. Jason Martin’s Queen Elizabeth is a campy treat, as are Per Janson’s despicable Romanian archduchess AND archduke.

Ted Simpson’s set is simple but inventive: a moveable platform and ramps that the cast slides around to change scenes. Karen Boyer’s costumes are just as simple and effective, even humorous when required. David Remedios’s sound design —ranging from music to the hissing of skates on ice — is flawlessly executed and essential to the production.

Although there’s little dancing as such, the show’s intricacies demand a skilled choreographer, in this case Daniel McCusker. Whether they’re moving the set pieces around or simulating Orlando’s coach, the cast is always on the move and entertaining to watch.

Virginia Woolf wrote “Orlando” as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, a poet and noted gardener whose ancestral pile, varied amours and gender-crossing wardrobe mirrored Orlando’s.  Both book and play explore what it is about us that is constant and essential, surviving change and the strictures of society.

“Orlando” is the first of this summer’s four major staged productions touching on that theme, Meg Taintor, OHA’s producing artistic director, says in her program notes. “As we programmed the season,” she writes, “we started with a single question: When the world is radically changing around you, how do you hold fast to who you are, but also survive the change?”

That does seem to be the question of our times. Watching OHA explore it this summer will be a pleasure.

Tickets for “Orlando” range from $20 to $50. Although bugs were nonexistent opening night, a little spray might be a good idea. Tickets/information: www.operahousearts.org or 367-2788.