TWO-FACED Exploring a range of identities in Orlando at USM.
So seething with life is fair Orlando (Madelyn James), young would-be poet in the age of Queen Elizabeth, that he is beloved by just about everybody, women and men alike. And so seething with life is fair Orlando that mere mortal singularity — one life, one self, one sex — is not enough. Instead, Orlando experiences eternal youth, a range of romances over four hundred and counting, and a complete gender change sometime near the end of the 17th century. With insights into both the masculine and the feminine, s/he is at the center of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a fabulist commentary on the fluidity of gender and sexual identity. Playwright Sarah Ruhl's adaptation of the novel is on stage in a vivacious student production of the University of Southern Maine, under the direction of Meghan Brodie.
Ruhl disperses Woolf's narrative among four Chorus members in tunics (the spry and energetic Mary Kate Ganza, Alice Hofgren, Hannah Perry, and Zac Stearn), who tell and react to Orlando's adventures with raised eyebrows, winces, and sympathetic grins; and Orlando also often narrates herself, alternating between first and third person. Brodie's dynamic blocking keeps everyone moving interestingly on stage, with characterizations rich in theatrical flourishes: Orlando's lover Sasha, a Russian princess in trousers (the dashing S. Anna Irving), glides beguilingly in her long, black cape. Queen Elizabeth (the imposing Sage R. Landry, in glorious drag) seems to carry about her own gravitational force field. The besotted Archduchess (Thomas Campbell) simpers, snorts, and shakes with giggles as she chases after Orlando. And as Orlando herself — famously clumsy — James, among many other things, falls and trips so convincingly that at one moment I believed she'd taken one hell of an unplanned face-plant.
Ruhl's characteristic energy and comic whimsy are also amplified in Brodie's production by images and animations projected over an otherwise austere double gray-blue stairway and platform: The stage is washed now in the gray cityscape of London, now warm-hued tapestries in Constantinople, now a shower of slow-falling golden rings, when Orlando's fourth finger gets itchy in the 18th century. As the eras skip by, we see the smokestacks and metallic skies of the industrial age, then the blurry trails of a London shopping district as Orlando navigates her new motorcar into the 20th century.
James is a virtuoso, fluent, highly intelligent Orlando, particularly once Orlando wakes and discovers her new body. She is delicious negotiating the range of her new female voice, regaling a sea captain with tonal variations on "Yes, please." In another marvelous sequence, with the besotted Archduke, the knowing, bored, and increasingly irritated Orlando learns that she has to put up with the submissive conventions of a woman receiving a man — even if he is uncouth, passive, and banal. Confined to two chairs, they barely speak, performing a most excellent, nuanced, hilarious comedy of facial expressions, hand gestures, and wordless sounds.
As this powerfully attractive human navigates genders and eras, Brodie's production of Orlando is pitch-perfect, combining romping comedy with her subtler reckonings, especially in the 20th century, accompanied by the escalating sounds of clocks, phones, Internet dial-up, and a whole new breed of malaise. ^
ORLANDO | adapted from the Virginia Woolf novel by Sarah Ruhl | Directed by Meghan Brodie | Produced by the University of Southern Maine Department of Theatre, in Gorham | through April 28 | 207.780.5151