The winning cast of Constellation’s new production of Orlando (★★★★☆) are having fun onstage, and their good time is infectious. Of course, Sarah Ruhl’s frolicsome, gender-swapping adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography supplies a sound blueprint for the farcical shenanigans this company puts over heartily.
The play also captures the romance and scope of the novel, as well as the ripe sexuality in the tale of Orlando (Mary Myers), whose journey toward their true self spans continents and centuries. Time for Orlando can’t be measured just by the clocks that line the flower petal-covered walls of Sarah Beth Hall’s dreamy, lavender salon and boudoir set.
Born to English nobility during the Elizabethan age, Orlando grows up a starry-eyed boy, full of vigor and charm. He vows to compose a great, epic ode to his favorite oak tree, but sets aside his poetry upon meeting Queen Elizabeth I (Alan Naylor, in a royally amusing turn).
Utterly besotted with the teen, the not-so-Virgin Queen bids him to serve in her court, where Orlando finds himself besotted with Russian princess Sasha (Edmée-Marie Faal).
Orlando blossoms in their affair, reveling in his manhood. “For there could be no doubt of his sex,” we’re told. But after he feels the sting of romantic betrayal, and moves to Constantinople to avoid overzealous admirer Archduchess Harriet (Arika Thames), he discovers another side of himself.
At 30, Orlando wakes up a woman, who tries donning a dress and other trappings of ladylike presentation, but finally decides to switch up her gender presentation and wardrobe as she pleases.
She revels in combining in one figure the strength of a man, and grace of a woman, and she goes on to live for centuries, alternately adored by both men and women.
Crucially, she finds love again, with eccentric sailor Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine Esquire (Christian Montgomery, hysterical in several roles), and, as she points out, learns both the penalties and privileges of her sex, gaining insight she never imagined as a man.
Nimbly essaying Orlando’s journey across hundreds of years, and between sexes, Myers keeps us along for the ride of the character’s surreal existence, girding each fanciful revelation with full-bodied commitment to the moment. She also carries off Orlando’s deeper emotional epiphanies, the knowledge that comes with pain.
Whether revealed in narration, or in Myers’ expression of a line of dialogue, Orlando’s extraordinarily constant personal growth draws a compelling throughline. Meanwhile, the hilarious cast draws out the satire in Woolf’s story, and the comic brio that’s baked into the production by director Nick Martin and his design team.
Kitt Crescenzo’s costumes for the ensemble, of leatherette ruff collars with corsets and breeches, easily convert, with the addition of skirts and capes, for speedy, funny wardrobe changes.
Stepping from inside the queen-sized wardrobe (as in furniture) that dominates Hall’s set, Naylor instantly assumes Elizabeth’s haughty mantle — though the Ziggy Stardust wig and Maggie Smith accent bring the monarch pleasantly down to earth.
The whole tidily condensed, laugh-filled adaptation brings Orlando, this mysterious romantic time-traveler, into clear focus as a feminist hero/ine, pioneering spirit of sexual freedom, and literary avatar for trans identity decades before those words could be put into print.
Orlando runs through Nov. 11 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, with a Zillennial Night Oct. 26, Pride Night performance Nov. 2, and Black Out Night performance Nov. 4.
Tickets are $20 to $45. Call 202-204-7741, or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.
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