Tuesday, September 28, 2010

THEATER: Orlando

Photo/Joan Marcus

What is Orlando supposed to be? Whatever Virginia Woolf set out to do in her original faux biography of the same name, it's not clear that playwright Sarah Ruhl knows any better, nor that director Rebecca Taichman particularly cares--given the way in which she's farmed out grid-based choreography to Annie-B Parson and the heavy lifting of the multiple-parts chorus to the fabulous costuming of Anita Yavich. Perhaps that's as it should be, since Orlando (Francesca Faridany) begins the play as a man and ends it, five hundred years later, as a woman. But then again, perhaps it's not, for if the play wants to be about the marked differences between a man and a woman--especially in the 1500s--Ruhl needs to do more than have the chorus discuss it; Taichman needs to do more than have David Greenspan--no matter how humorously--doff a two-dimensional robe and clunk around as Queen Elizabeth.

The biggest unanswered question throughout the show is, Why adapt Orlando in this fashion? Ruhl's writing flows beautifully on the page, but it is tiring on the stage--all poetic flourish and no physical substance. It comes across as exceedingly showy, from the way in which "frost" is depicted by draping a white sheet over the green grass of the square set to the freeze-framed tableaux before and after the intermission. Worse, character plays second-fiddle to all this text, from the overpoweringly bland narrative of the chorus to the thin emotional breadth we get to see from anyone other than Orlando. As for Faridany herself, she's a lovely and exuberant actor, but either she's given no room to show the difference between Act I's masculinity and Act II's femininity, or she does not know how to express that. It is one thing for the play to say "In one night, Orlando had thrown off his boyish clumsiness and become a nobleman," but quite another for it to fail to show this.

Orlando's central struggle is to become a poet--and words, time and time again, fail him. How almost cruelly ironic that Ruhl, who already is poetic, gives him all the words in the world and still fails him: "Flinging a net of words after the wild goose of meaning and everything shrivels," shrieks Orlando, and indeed, the play is flaccid. Even those who major in Gender Studies may be taken aback by such bland musings: "How odd! When I was a young man, I insisted that women be obedient, chaste, and scented. Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires."

It's telling that Orlando's largest problem stems from an entirely different direction, too: the scope is so vast, so unbalancing, that it once again makes a mess of meaning. Orlando spends the first hour as a "man" in the Elizabethan Age, but then the next hour--and four centuries--as a woman, and it is only in this latter part, as she is wooed, as she is married, as she is independent, that we see any growth. As a research paper, it lacks a thesis; as a play, it lacks a heart. This is frivolous philosophical babble and Ruhl, who has offered so much more when masking her big ideas (like In The Next Room or Dead Man's Cell Phone), has written the season's first big disappointment.

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