Man and woman. Two genders. It all seems very simple, yet, what if one’s identity that was completely linked to him or her was completely transformed? What if a person went to sleep one day as a man, and woke up the next day as a woman?
Enter the role of experimental theater.
Modernist author Virginia Woolf attempts to answer many of these questions in her novel “Orlando,” a tale of a young boy who lives for five centuries, changes genders once and doesn’t age past 36 years.
The Claire Trevor School of the Arts had big shoes to fill in being the second theater to perform “Orlando,” currently an unpublished play as well as having been only produced once in Chicago.
However, this show was an excellent production, which illuminated several abstract concepts of life through a wonderfully talented cast.
The story of “Orlando” begins in the late 16th century with a young boy who dreams of being a poet. He quickly becomes a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, as well as a lover of a Russian princess. After having his heart broken by the latter, he retreats to Constantinople, where he awakens in the mid-18th century as a woman.
Returning to England, Orlando must learn to understand the consequences of acting more manly, as well as the limits of her sexual promiscuity that she experienced when she was previously a man.
In the 19th century, she meets a man who complements her masculine tendencies with feminine actions. As their sexual identities are blurred, they fall madly in love and soon marry.
The story ends in the present day, more or less the 1920s, given the time period of Woolf’s authorship in a department store, where Orlando is caught in the hustle and bustle of consumer living.
Ending on a note of acceptance with uncertainty, Orlando returns to her husband at the final scene of the show.
Presumed to be what is termed at the longest love letter to the Lady Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf’s lover, “Orlando” is a well-executed performance with its creative script and limited set.
One of the best elements of the show was the narration style. Simultaneously linked with the actual dialogue, each character spoke their own words, as well as delivered the thoughts he or she feels from a third-person point of view, which would usually serve as emotional reference for an actor.
A tricky style of acting, one could possibly get muddled in constantly stepping in and out of character; however, the entire cast did an amazing job in portraying their characters, as they effectively explored the full range of experimental acting.
The performances were truly inspiring: not in a manner that was immediately recognizable, but instead ended up being emotionally satisfying days after.
Sonya Cooke as the titular Orlando added depth to the character that few others could even dream of possessing. Subtle with her nuances, yet bold and passionate with her simultaneous narration, Cooke was an excellent choice as the title role. She was able to effectively bridge the gap between male and female with ease.
The supporting cast was excellent as well. With only a 10-member cast, but upwards of 17 roles available, the cast moved swiftly from role to role, using the narration as the only indicator as to which character was being played.
Standout cameo performances included Grant Lancaster as Orlando’s fiancée Bonthrop and Breanne Murphy as Queen Elizabeth, both of whom truly elevated the play as a whole with their subtle character additions from their normal narratives.
Although there were significant sound problems the night I attended, the set was also stunning, using creative lighting and audio to provide the changes in seasons and centuries. Using only a single set, with a different style chair for each century visited, this show reiterates the truth that a wonderful performance is about the story rather than the set.
The Claire Trevor School’s “Orlando” is a wonderful portrayal on the intricacies of gender roles and identity through time.
Examining on the concept of love through the ages, “Orlando” reaffirms it is not the exterior, but the interior, that truly establishes the worth of existence.