Although John Gray’s bestseller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus was a pop culture phenomenon more than 22 years ago, its basic premise –– that the sexes are controlled by virtually insurmountable, biologically determined social differences –– remains the conventional wisdom on the subject of gender relations. That’s why Virginia Woolf’s fanciful 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography feels as revolutionary now as it ever did. Woolf posited that the human race could more accurately be divided by personality types rather than hormones and genitalia.
Her feminist saga showcases one adventurous poet who begins a five-century trek across European history as a man but mid-way through the journey is mystically and inexplicably transformed into a woman. Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Orlando, which receives a gorgeous and bountifully clever regional premiere thanks to Stage West, doesn’t dally in the tedious academic gender theories that have so often sucked the sweet humor out of the book. The story was written, after all, as a cheeky ode full of inside jokes to Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West, who loved to dress in men’s suits. Ruhl and Stage West co-directors Jim Covault and Garret Storms have captured the book’s gentle intimacy in the Fort Worth production, which positively glows with ingenious stagecraft and sharp, generous performances by its resourceful cast of six.
Ruhl has excised a significant amount of plot and character detail from Woolf’s novel but retained large portions of its marvelous poetry, which works surprisingly well as dialogue in the stage version. She also has created a chorus of three male actors (Mark Shum, Nick Moore, Stephen Rosenberger) who recreate Woolf’s wry commentary as well as playing a variety of characters of both sexes. Orlando (the delightful Anastasia Muñoz) begins life in late-16th-century London as a sword-wielding lad and aspiring poet who pens earnest verse expounding the natural splendor of oak trees. He becomes the consort of Queen Elizabeth I (Shum in a comically ornate wig and crown), but the job of royal boy-toy loses its appeal after he falls in love with a brooding Russian noblewoman named Sasha (Katherine Bourne). Orlando’s amorous exploits continue with a scheming Romanian arch-duchess (Rosenberger) and a giggly Italian singer (Moore) until, after a mysterious seven-day sleep, he wakes up near the start of the 18th century as a woman. Our hero’s basic personality –– a mixture of skepticism and romantic creativity –– stays the same, but social expectations change dramatically once the physical anatomy does. Suddenly Orlando is forced to deal with male suitors and patriarchal restrictions on women’s behavior. With her ring finger uncomfortably throbbing from rampant demands that she marry, Orlando reluctantly courts an archduke (Rosenberger) with whom she has nothing in common and a patrician sailor (Moore) who, like her, combines traditional male and female characteristics in very un-traditional ways. The play ends with Orlando as a very modern woman in 1920s London (sort of like Sackville-West), finally prepared by her vast historical experiences to write great poetry but still utterly confused by romance, commitment, and socially proscribed gender roles.
Stage West’s Orlando takes a minimalist approach to sets, lighting, and sound effects, putting the show’s burden of success on the performers, who deliver Woolf’s beautiful metaphorical language (Orlando compares Sasha to “an olive tree, an emerald, a wolf in the snow”) with commanding but casual authority. By playing up the theatrical artifice and never appearing to take Woolf’s sophisticated brand of feminist satire too seriously, they let the author’s central concerns about the primacy of art and the vulnerability of human desire take the foreground. As a result, Orlando becomes a rare treat for theatergoers –– a feel-good show that’s as soulful and complex as it is cheerful and tender-hearted.
Thru May 4 at Stage West, 821 W Vickery Blvd, FW. $28-32. 817-STG-WEST.