In the summer of 1957, when I was living in exile in Rye, New York, whiling away the time between my freshman and sophomore years at Barnard as a live-in babysitter, and whining about it, my father suggested I read Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s fictional biography of her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. Sarah Ruhl’s dramatization of Woolf’s most popular novel is playing at Profile Theatre through November 22nd, and while it’s not entirely successful, it definitely has its pleasures.
I’d heard of Orlando, but no novel of Woolf’s was on the freshman English syllabus at Barnard; nor, I later discovered, was she considered good or influential enough to be part of the course I took on the English novel, or even one I took on modern literature and the allied arts. None of her books were in my high school library; and this was long before her letters and diaries were published, or Leonard Woolf’s extraordinary multi-volume memoirs, or the various biographies of their friends and relations.
I read Orlando in one or two nights, and enjoyed it as the adventure story it is, loving the chief protagonist’s struggles to write poetry, which mirrored my own, although I sometimes found Woolf’s style difficult to follow. I loved particularly the description of the frozen Thames during the reign of King James the First, when Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess named Sasha, who wears trousers and breaks his heart.
I don’t remember feeling startled by Orlando’s transformation from male to female, or the cross-dressing, but then, I grew up in Greenwich Village, and took such declarations of sexual orientation for granted. More important, I now realize, many of Woolf’s references, quips, and opinions went right by me, and I did not even begin to grasp the magnitude of Woolf’s achievement in compressing half a millennium of English history (political, social and literary) into the two hundred and ninety-nine pages of the Hogarth Press edition of the book.
Or, as I reread it this past weekend, how laugh-out-loud funny this highly opinionated coming-of-age story (for Orlando is certainly that) can be. A housekeeper is named Grimsditch, a chaplain Dupper; reading and poetry are a disease; a long-winded poet, very, visits Orlando in his 365-room mansion (modeled on Sackville-West’s childhood home, which really did have that many rooms) and declares that poetry is dead – at the time that Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Donne are writing. When Woolf gets to the Victorians, she really goes to town, describing the clutter of their homes, decrying the emphasis on marriage and childbearing for women, what she calls the modesty of the female intellect, and, oh joy, sending up Romantic and Victorian poetry with such vapid verse as this:
And then I came to a field where the springing grass
Was dulled by the hanging cups of fritillaries,
Sullen and foreign-looking, the snaky flower
Scarfed in dull purple, like Egyptian girls.
The biography-cum-novel (Woolf refers to herself as the biographer throughout the book) ends in the 20th century; Orlando has married and borne the first of several children, and finished The Oak Tree (the stand-in for Sackville-West’s long poem The Land) which took her five hundred years to write [sic]. She has received awards and even money for it, and considers herself grown up. She is still, however, looking for her selves, as she is reunited with her husband, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, who has been away at sea, but returns home on an airplane. The book ends with: “And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight.”
That’s where Ruhl’s play ends, too. And if Woolf’s five-hundred-year family saga in three hundred pages is impressive, Ruhl’s distillation of it in less than two hours of stage time boggles the mind. In Profile’s production, she has help: the spare set consists of a highly stylized oak tree, designed by Tal Sanders, and props designed by Drew Dannhorn, which change, stylistically, as the centuries pass. Those transitions are also accomplished with an excellent soundscape by Em Gustason, who combines snippets of period music with the tolling of bells and the thrum of engines, when we get to the twentieth century. Alison Heryer’s costumes assist, as well; the only failure is Orlando’s sleeveless dress at the end of the play: in 1928, dresses had sleeves, and if they didn’t, were worn with a jacket to cover the upper arms. Carl Faber’s lights contribute to the shifting of mood, scene, and time of day, and the show, in short, is well and skillfully produced.
It opens with the same scene as the novel: Beth Thompson as Orlando, clad in red tights, is practicing swordsmanship on the dried-up head of an infidel one of his ancestors has brought back from foreign parts. Thompson’s stance is boyish. She strides across the stage, displaying the legs that seduced a great queen, even though Orlando was late for the banquet in her honor.
Some of the narrative is provided by a chorus consisting of Crystal Munõz, Ben Newman, Ted Rooney and Elizabeth Rothan, a device that did not work when they were required to speak in unison, at which they failed, making their lines nearly incomprehensible. As individual characters, they did much better, particularly Munõz as Sasha, the Russian princess, who appears in every century of the action, and as the cockney Mrs. Grimsditch. Rothan portrays a marvelously elderly, faintly lascivious, and always imperious Queen Elizabeth the First, who Ruhl has make an appearance in the twentieth century, something that does not occur in the novel. While no sensible person would ask a playwright working nearly a century after Woolf wrote Orlando to be faithful to every jot and tittle of the book, this seemed pointless to me in the context of the play itself. I also wasn’t sure why the great transformation scene, as well done as it was, takes place later, when Orlando is ambassador to Turkey, than it does in the novel, although I do understand why her subsequent stay with the gypsies is excised, as amusing and as pertinent to Sackville West’s family history as that is.
Rooney’s comic turn as the Roumanian archduke, whom Orlando, by that time back in England, cheats at a gambling game involving flies and cubes of sugar, is hilarious, as is his portrayal of Dupper, the inept chaplain who marries Orlando. So is the wonderfully named Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire, played by Newman with a kind of practical yet romantic husbandly skill. Thompson’s consistently convincing and intelligent performance as both the male and the female Orlando certainly contributes to the viability of this conversion of novel to drama.
The drama has many wonderful moments: the tension as Orlando waits for Sasha to join him in a clandestine departure from England to Russia (she stands him up); the scene with the flies and the sugar cubes; the bit on the boat returning to England from Turkey, when Orlando realizes that being a woman pampered by a man (in this case the ship’s captain) means a loss of power; and the descent of several large wedding rings onto the stage when Orlando feels nagged, and how, into marriage.
And yet, while Ruhl uses much of Woolf’s language in the dialogue as well as the narrative, the players don’t seem to savor the words, even when poetry is under discussion or being quoted, perhaps because the various accents are problematic for them, although Thompson manages Orlando’s upper-class diction very well. Matthew B. Zrebski’s direction keeps the actors moving all the time, always a good thing in the eyes of this reviewer of dancing. However, when humor is called for, it can verge on the burlesque, which for me doesn’t work. Woolf’s humor is far more intellectual than physical, and it seems to me that Ruhl, a prolific and excellent writer with a family of young children to tend to as well, did this adaptation for serious reasons.
Some of them pertain to the regressive political situation in which we find ourselves in the United States today. Anything that makes us laugh about those issues (and Ruhl’s play certainly achieves that) needs to be seen, faithful to the book or not, episodic rather than cohesive; it remains, in an age of increasing mindlessness, entertainment that makes us think.
Profile Theatre’s Orlando continues through November 22 on the Alder Stage of Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.