It seemed oddly sacrilegious when, ten minutes into rehearsing an adaptation of what Nigel Nicolson called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” an actor said, adjusting his black corset and tie, “We are no longer disrobed drag queens.” But it was positively blasphemous when the other actors and the director shared a laugh. But Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” is no ordinary love letter, and Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation for the Court Theater is no ordinary play.
Drew Dir, Court Theater’s dramaturge, summarizes the plot of “Orlando” thus: “a young nobleman, Orlando loves the Russian princess Sasha and dreams of becoming a poet. He lives 400 years, undergoing a change of sex before finally arriving at the present moment to discover his/her true identity.” The plot proves to be quite an odd epic, but two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Ruhl does a splendid job of contending with the challenge. Jessica Thebus, a long time collaborator with Ruhl and the director of this production, describes her search for the balance in “Orlando,” as a process of “juxtaposing fantasy and whimsy beside the steel of real grief.”
One especially intriguing quality about the production is Ruhl’s choice to keep the narration in the text, so as to retain Woolf’s remarkable voice. In order to accomplish this, Thebus directed the players to use active narration, a staging technique developed by University of Chicago alumnus Paul Sills, which involves the actor playing the dual role of third-party narrator and involved character. “It requires the actor to be comfortable addressing the audience directly without sacrificing any of the specificity of playing a character,” Dir says.
Dir believes that “Orlando” is an important step in Court Theater’s movement toward adapting more classic texts for the stage, even if they were not necessarily originally written as plays. “Next season,” he says, “we’ll be producing a one-man adaptation of Homer’s ‘Iliad,’ and world premiering the very first stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man.’”
“Orlando” is a lot of fun, for the performers as well as the audience. The actors did not sound even a little tired, despite having undergone six days of eight-hour tech rehearsals. Everyone was enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of the stage, which was peppered with blue and green lights to match the gauze curtains that frame it. Suddenly, Amy Carle, the at-this-moment-female Orlando, began to speak, standing on a chair and reaching for a pull chain. “None of those lingering shadows,” she said. “At a touch, the room is bright and the sky is bright all night long” and the lights flashed up, blinding the men in drag. Amy continued to conjure up her picture, pulling everyone into her world–using the minimal set around her and narrating all her character’s thoughts and movements, from a considered contemplation of time to a hurried drive through busy streets.
The chorus completed the last scene before a break in the rehearsal with some complex maneuvers as though in the driver’s seat of a car, weaving in and out of a busy road. “Hold,” Thebus called into the microphone. The actors held. “Believe it or not, that looked pretty good.” And look good it certainly did.
Court Theatre, 5535 S Ellis Ave. Through April 10. $50; $10 with UCID, Friday-Sunday; Free with UCID, Wednesday-Thursday. (773)753-4472. courttheatre.org