It’s one thing to go to the theater and enjoy yourself. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But it’s a far more transcendent joy to revel as the actors and actresses have even more fun than you.
So it is for WSC Avant Bard’s production of Orlando.
The play opens in Elizabethan England. There, the carefree frolics of a young nobleman (a boy, really) named Orlando (Sara Barker) are interrupted as Queen Elizabeth I (Mario Baldessari) asks him to attend her at court. The Queen’s invitation is less monarchial honor, though, and more entrapment as it quickly becomes clear that her interest in Orlando is…well, exactly what it looks like.
But Orlando is only too excited to attend to her wishes. He is both a romantic and an adventurous spirit, at one moment declaring an intense desire to “chop the head off an infidel” and the next, struggling to poetically capture the beauty of an old oak tree. This is Peter Pan, but with a lustful appetite. Orlando is playing the role of a man at court in the company of an adoring Queen and, despite the significant age gap between them, he is entirely thrilled to enjoy the ride.
Orlando’s adventurous spirit gets the best of him, however, as the beautiful (and far more age-appropriate) Sasha (Amanda Forstrom) steals his heart. Sasha is ostensibly a Russian princess and her zest for life is on par with Orlando’s. She’s passionate and sexy, and it looks like it really might work out until she runs off for a dalliance with a Russian sea captain.
Poor, poor Orlando.
Thankfully, he has plenty of time to heal, as Orlando is not at all constrained by the limits of a single lifetime. The play carries from the 16th century through the 19th century, with Orlando aging slowly as the centuries pass. The result gives the play a fantastical air, allowing the audience to suspend reality and more importantly watch our hero mature and adapt through the ages.
It’s worth noting at this point that Orlando is playwright Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel (yes, novel) “Orlando: a Biography.” The work is understood as being partially based on Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West, which offers a telling backdrop for the gender play that defines the work.
Orlando, masterfully played by Sara Barker, is ambiguously gendered. When the play opens Orlando is clearly male, but as the work progresses so, too, does Orlando. When Orlando awakens as a woman following a mysterious transformation, she is understandably surprised. But Orlando is also surprisingly comfortable with the result, wearing her new skin like a long-forgotten overcoat that still fits just right.
There are immediate drawbacks and advantages for Orlando to navigate, what she calls “the penalties and privileges of her position.” No longer free to gallivant through the forest or chop the head off an infidel without rebuke, Orlando quickly learns the social realities of 16th – 19th century womanhood. At times, she stumbles. At others, she revels. The specifics I’ll leave for you to discover.
But enough about this exquisite piece of art. Let’s talk about men dressed in drag!
This is where Orlando’s chorus comes in. Mario Baldessari, Andrew Ferlo and Jay Hardee are a brilliant comedic trio. Through rapid costume changes they play Orlando’s handmaids and handmen, a queen, various lovers and, at one point, an automobile. In drag, these three channel the comedic stylings of Monty Python or Kids in the Hall. They’re funny and engaging throughout, rounding any sharp edges that might otherwise mark the work.
The solid effort doesn’t stop there. Amanda Forstrom is dashing as Sasha, skating across the stage and winning the audience with her saucy Russian accent. I’d also be remiss if Scenic Designer Steven Royal and Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny were left out for making extraordinary use of limited space and giving 5 actors the tools to portray an endless array of characters.
Closes March 24, 2014
Theatre on the Run
3700 South Four Mile Run Drive
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
And then there’s Orlando. Through the sometimes mirthful, always exuberant performance by Sara Barker, Orlando comes alive. Orlando is, let’s be honest, an angsty rich kid facing an internal struggle. It would be easy to lose the bigger picture if delivered poorly. But Barker’s portrayal is wholly self-aware. The result leaves the audience sympathetic, firmly rooting for the protagonist, but also laughing and well entertained.
The gender play that marks the work is also respectful and thought provoking, and both the playwright and Director Amber Jackson deserve praise on that note. There are times – many times – when the work is funny. That’s good. Mario Baldessari as a lusty Queen Elizabeth is funny, and people should laugh. But the comedy is accented with notes of thoughtful introspection too on a serious and timely subject, and that’s a job well done all around.
The result is a play that lets you take from it what you will. If guys in drag give you a chuckle, well, there’s plenty of that. Enjoy! But if you’re up for a spirited exploration of gender identification, Orlando delivers on that as well.
Get thee to Avant Bard’s “Orlando,” before the century slips away.
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Celia Wren . Washington Post
Andrew White . BroadwayWorld
Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
David Siegel . ShowBizRadio
Sophia Howes . DCMetroTheaterArts