Sarah Ruhl Brings ORLANDO Back To New York — Review


The company of Orlando | Photo: Joan Marcus

Joey Sims
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April 22, 2024 1:20 PM

The Irene Diamond Stage at Signature Theatre is very wide. It is a wide-ass stage. Despite only holding 294 seats, the space as a whole feels vast, its high ceilings lending a certain immensity. 

So it’s exciting when a director decides not to narrow or contain the Diamond, but to embrace that vastness — either by filling the theater to the brim, or by letting its emptiness overwhelm.

David Cromer pulled off the latter with Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence God in 2022, placing an office cubicle at the center of a vast nothingness. Back in 2015, Tina Landau took the opposite tack and turned the room into a bastion of bacchanalia for Charles Mee’s Big Love, filling the stage with wildly gyrating bodies and dangling hundreds of roses from the ceiling. 

Will Davis’ intriguing but underpowered revival of Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando, a lyrical adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel, lands somewhere in-between. We are treated to extravagant 17th, 18th and 19th century costumes from Ooana Botez, delightful period backdrops and lush, brightly-hued lighting from Barbara Samuels. But Arnullfo Maldonado’s scenic design is mostly spare, utilizing office tables, desk chairs and the theater’s exposed back wall. 

Davis is seeking a certain fluidity of time and place — which makes sense, given that Woolf’s tale traverses centuries. We follow the ageless Orlando (Taylor Mac) from Elizabethan times through to the present day. Along the way, our sensitive, often self-absorbed protagonist lives variously as a noble and a nomad, cycling through various suitors and struggling to complete her magnum opus, an epic poem entitled The Oak Tree.

But the production’s push-and-pull ultimately frustrates. Orlando’s tale should feel huge, monumental. Davis only fitfully hits on that grandness, then pulls back just as quickly. The production is also tonally uncertain, bouncing between broad comedy and contemplative melancholy. But within that mess, the indispensable Mac provides a moving emotional throughline. 

Taylor Mac | Photo: Joan Marcus

Ruhl’s adaptation employs a kind of “Greek Chorus” to deliver Orlando’s tale, trading off narration and the various characters in her life. Here, the ensemble is a cadre of off-Broadway’s queerest and finest, among them a commanding Jo Lampert, madcap Janice Amaya and wry TL Thompson. 

Oddly, the six performers deliver the narration in wildly different registers, never cohering as a single storytelling body. This might be deliberate, an attempt to allow space for a group of queer, trans and non-binary performers to exist in their own identities rather than conforming to a one delivery style. But locking-in emotionally on a story narrated by six voices is hard enough to begin with, so this jumble feels misguided. 

Probably all six should have followed the lead of the magnificent Nathan Lee Graham, who hits on a bombastic and grandiose style — most hilariously as a preening Queen Elizabeth. Graham’s work finds that grandness which the production as a whole fails to consistently reach. 

If neither the production nor the narration ever quite transcend, Mac still finds the sublime in Orlando’s gender transformation. While living in Constantinople, the formerly male Orlando wakes one morning to find she is now a woman. Mac has great fun with Orlando’s horror at the various societal challenges one faces inside a female body. 

And while Woolf’s novel provides limited opportunities to explore this transformation through a more contemporary prism of gender expansiveness, Mac does much of that work silently, subtly embodying the strength and wisdom of an existence freed from the gender binary. 

How I wished for a similarly textured production around Mac — a transcendent celebration of a strange, wondrous existence. A little more of a Landau-style bacchanal, perhaps. For Signature, which has lately cut its seasons in half (producing just three shows this year and next), those days of abundance might be over. Still, even in a sparer staging, a life this big shouldn’t feel so small. 

Orlando is now in performance at the Signature Theatre in New York City. 

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Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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