Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, “Orlando: A Biography” is highly regarded for its satire on social history and gender roles. In 2010, lauded playwright Sarah Ruhl turned it into a vibrant stage version. Delta Boys Theater Company’s current production puts its own brilliant spin on the piece.
In Woolf’s freewheeling fable, Orlando begins as a young English noble who becomes a favorite of Elizabeth I. After her death, he falls for a Russian princess who’s unfaithful to him. In his melancholy, he goes to Constantinople as King Charles II’s ambassador (in the first of many chronological jumps).
While there, Orlando awakens one day transformed into a woman. After returning to England, his dalliance with an archduke makes him understand women’s subjugation to men’s power and decides not to marry. Once in the 19th century, Orlando finds a suitable match in Marmaduke, a sea captain with his own feminine side. Orlando is finally at peace in the 20th century, writing an epic poem about what he has learned as a woman.
Ruhl’s 90-minute one-act precisely captures the novel’s essence, the dialogue mostly Woolf’s own words. The actors share the text, sometimes as characters, sometimes as narrators.
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Emily Anderson beautifully balances Orlando’s two sides: cheeky and cocksure as a man; gentle and flirtatious as a woman. Four equally talented players support her extremely engaging performance.
Dale Wolf switches instantly from scullery maid to rough sailor, with Marmaduke the most intriguing characterization. Caitlin Wells humorously embodies numerous oddballs, especially the annoying Archduchess Harriet, later turning male when enamored with female Orlando. Skylar Gudasz gives Princess Sasha a Slavic flair, while Rajeev Rajendran’s crowning achievement is a most amusing Elisabeth I (complete with beard and chest hair).
Delta Boys’ fluid, tautly paced staging is all the more impressive because the task is done collectively. Artist Elsa Hoffman’s patterned steel set pieces, including a London street scene and the queen’s elaborate dress, comprise a show of their own. Joseph Amodei’s atmospheric lighting and Kim Black’s clever gender-morphing costumes complete this nigh-perfect presentation.
The timeliness of a work about gender identities is obvious in today’s political landscape but Woolf’s themes transcend the present with universal insights, marvelously rendered in this production.
What: “Orlando,” presented by Delta Boys Theater Company
Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham
When: 8:15 p.m. Jan. 19-21, 25-28; and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22
Tickets: $20 (Thursdays $12) with discounts for seniors/ military/students
Info: 919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org