Review: Orlando

A national theatre school triumph

By Byron Toben

“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” sung Professor Henry Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. Had GBS held off until his fellow Bloomsbury groupie, Virginia Woolf`’s 1928 novel Orlando, he might have had one answer — start out as a man. In Ms Woolf’s work, the protagonist awakes after a week long sleep in Istanbul to find himself transformed into a beautiful woman, but still athletic.

Shocking, but a better result than Kafka’s 1913 Metamorphosis changing into a giant cockroach and presaging 1976 Montreal Olympic decathlon champ Bruce Jenner’s sex change to Caitlyn as announced on the cover of Vanity Fair a scant 3 months ago.

orlando play at national theatre schoolOrlando, in 40-year-old enfant terrible Sarah Ruhl’s lush adaptation, just completed a five-day run at the Monument National as performed by the graduating students of the National Theatre School.

Director Eda Holmes marshaled 11 actors performing 20 roles as well as transitioning into a ten person Greek like Chorus to amplify Orlando’s life voyage (600 years!) as it swirls around him/her, bedecked in white, cream and beige.

Christina Fox is superb as Orlando, the vibrant youth who only really wanted to be a poet. All the other members of the cast were so proficient that I felt that all of them could have been interchangeable with each other in any of the roles. Handling the more flamboyant roles were Nicholas Nahwegahbow as Queen Elizabeth, Maddalena Vailecchi Williams as Russian lover Sasha, Mark Correia as a Romanian Archduchess/Archduke and Benjamin Sutherland as eventual husband Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (phew!).

orlando play at national theatre schoolShakespearean references flitter through out. Orlando is of course also the name of Rosalind’s lover in As You Like It and brief bits invoke Othello and Desdemona.

Ms. Ruhl’s imaginative use of giant frames allow the ensemble to, well, frame each scene and character with panache. Each passing century bears its own costumes and mores. One cute quip from the 20th century was the confusing imperative to live in the moment whereas before, the past and the future were clearly demarked.

Ms. Ruhl’s style as been described as a sort of stream of consciousness recalling James Joyce and, to Kerouac groupies like me, Jack. She has received a MacArthur Genius award for Drama, has penned 11 plays of her own and 5 adaptations (including 2 of Chekov works). Although these 16 fall short of Shakespeare’s 36 and Shaw’s 62, she has the capacity to catch up. Pretty good for a gal from Chicago suburb Wilmette who just wanted, as did Virginia and Orlando, to be a poet.

Images: Maxime Cote

Orlando closed at the Monument National on December 12.

Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.

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