Citizen Staff Writer
Gender has become such a highly politicized subject in these agitated times it’s difficult to watch Sarah Ruhl’s stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bender novel “Orlando” without wondering what the feminists will think.
So it’s a bit of a shock to see right in the program notes of the Rogue Theatre’s production, this quote from Orlando, “Which is the greater ecstasy? The man’s or the woman’s?”
Clearly, Woolf has more on her mind than complaining how a male-dominated economy always kept women from equal pay for equal work. Rogue’s presentation supports Woolf’s wider and happier view.
Ecstasy sounds a lot like pleasure, and there’s plenty of that in Cynthia Meier’s light-hearted direction. Patty Gallagher puts her twinkly blue eyes to good use as the fantasy figure Orlando – 30 years old in Elizabethan England but only 36 when she passes away in 1928.
Oh, and Orlando begins this journey across time as a strapping lad full of sexual energy. Sometime during the Victorian era he becomes a female, wrapped up in a corseted green gown and topped off with a white, powdered wig.
Virginia Woolf’s bisexuality is well documented. “Orlando,” the novel, is her tribute to Vita Sackville-West, lovers when both were 36.
Tilda Swinton starred in a strident film adaptation of “Orlando” in 1992. No doubt that seemed like a good idea at the time.
But Meier’s take on the story is wiser, more balanced and well-reasoned. Androgyny is definitely not the solution. Making men and women the same would be as boring as parity in professional sports.
On the Rogue stage, comedy is king. And queen. Ruhl presents the play by using two actors, Orlando and Sasha (Avis Judd), accompanied by a quintet of guys. To call them a Greek chorus would only be accurate in the broadest sense.
For one thing, they get to play all the hammy parts and have the best punch lines. Basically they are mimes without white face, mugging their way through vaudeville routines straight from silent movies. They can also clump up to become trees with many branches, then scatter and twist across the bare stage to become other parts of the landscape.
Across the back wall of the stage are hung about 20 hats of different colors (some with large feathers), several elegant capes and a pair of those roomy Shakespeare-looking pants. All of it gets used in the course of covering 400 years.
Gallagher applies nonstop energy to her role, as well as adjusting her body language not only to the passing centuries but also to the switch in gender. In the first act she is so convincing as a hale-fellow-well-met, we feel Orlando’s confusion to discover himself in the body of a female.
At first she is pleasantly surprised all the guys are always so nice to her, but then realizes being placed on a pedestal to be admired also takes her out of the action. But significantly, Orlando the female also discovers women have always held a significant place in every culture.
Both genders have their struggles. Both genders have devastating pressures they must survive. At the end, Orlando is completely fulfilled, understanding both sexes.
One of the most touching love stories begins in Act One when Orlando the young man is helplessly taken with a duchess. Then Orlando has other lovers and other adventures. In Act Two, after Orlando is a woman, she meets a duke who reminds her of the duchess. Quickly the power of their love is felt across the centuries. No matter which gender they might be at the time, their love for each other can’t be denied.
Lessons like these are the most important part of “Orlando.” Certainly the feminist messages are in there, but don’t let that stop you.
IF YOU GO
What: The Rogue Theatre presents “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 8
Where: Cabaret Theatre at the Theatre of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
Price: $20 general admission, pay-what-you-will Thursday and Feb. 5
Info: 551-2053, theroguetheatre.org