Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 21, 2024

TL Thompson, Lisa Kron, Taylor Mac, and Jo Lampert
Photo by Joan Marcus
Midway through Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel, "Orlando: A Biography," the protagonist awakes after a long sleep as a different gender. "It is enough for us to state the simple fact," the narrator explains, "Orlando was a man till the age of thirty, when she became a woman and has remained so ever since." In addition to switching genders, the character's life spans several centuries across a couple of continents. For the uninitiated, it's a bedeviling and confusing work. Sarah Ruhl's adaptation of the novel, simply titled Orlando and currently playing at Signature Theatre in New York, revels in this bedevilment and confusion. With whimsical direction and choreography by Will Davis, the play smartly synthesizes the dense, nearly 300-page novel into a fleet 100 minutes (including intermission) performance runtime.

In the program notes, Ruhl explains that the novel, which was inspired by Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West, was written "with more joy, buoyancy, and speed than any of her other novels." That sense of joy pervades the new production of the play (which was first produced in a different version in 2003). With a company headed by the multi-talented Taylor Mac, Orlando combines the intimacy of traditional story theatre with the spontaneity and scrappiness of downtown performance art.

Mac (who uses the pronoun "judy") is utterly convincing and thoroughly endearing as the titular character. We first meet Orlando as a sixteen-year-old boy who is a budding poet, but he cannot find the words to commit to paper. He attracts the attention of Queen Elizabeth I (performed regally and hilariously by Nathan Lee Graham), who takes him into her court.

While living in the Elizabethan era, he falls in love with Sasha (Janice Amaya, who applies a thick Hollywood-style Russian accent to great comic effect), a duplicitous Russian princess who jilts him. Finding himself alone and now in the 17th century, Orlando becomes the object of desire of a strange and obsessive Archduchess (in a rollicking and riotous performance by Lisa Kron). The affair forces Orlando to escape to Romania, where he will become a woman.

As a woman living in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, Orlando realizes the disparate social and legal realities between men and women. Presumed dead, for instance, she is subjected to two lawsuits that effectively seize her properties. The reasons behind the judgments for the acquisition are: "One: That you are dead, and therefore cannot hold any property whatsoever. Two: That you are a woman, which amounts to much the same thing."

The book has become a must-read in feminist and queer literary studies, and Woolf's trenchant and very contemporary views on gender and sexuality are made manifest in the second-act marriage of Orlando to Marmaduke (Rad Pereira, who is beguiling as the sensitive sailor). The two characters fall in love, mistaking the genders of each partner.

Occasionally, Davis's staging, which includes periodic dance breaks (and with assistance from Brendan Aanes's sound design, captures the thrum of a discotheque), overdoes the satirical elements as if to emphasize the relevance of the situations and themes. Yet the cast (which is rounded out by the impressively mutable Jo Lampert and TL Thompson) are adept at reining in their performances as moments veer toward camp excesses.

Arnulfo Maldonado's scenic design gives the sense of a large rehearsal room or dance studio, and there are small set pieces that help convey changes of locales. Barbara Samuels's lighting features large, moveable floodlights, and Oana Botez's costumes include period frocks, extravagant robes, and eccentric accessories. The minimalist approach highlights the improvisational quality of the production, and call attention to the show's artifice and theatricality.

Orlando, like the source on which it is derived, will surely divide audiences. Still, even among detractors, it would be hard to deny that the character has found a damn near ideal interpretation in Taylor Mac. Just as Orlando traverses epochs, Mac persuasively shows that judy is a star for the ages.

Through May 12, 2024
Signature Theatre
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: