The intoxication of language!
Normally, language is just one of the seductions of theater, along with plot, conflict, ideas, setting, performers, audience and the zest of the present moment. Indeed, language is supposed to be secondary to most of these. But not when the event is a dramatization of that eccentric 1928 Virginia Woolf novel, “Orlando.”
On stage, “Orlando” is a swirl of language infatuated with itself and with transformation, history, self-definition and love.
Where: Unseam’d Shakespeare at Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland.
When: Through June 21; 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 4 p.m. Sun., also 3 p.m. June 21.
Tickets: $22 in advance or $25 at the door; students $15/$18; 1-888-718-4253 or unseamd.com.
“Orlando: A Biography,” Woolf called it, but the biography is a fiction in which Orlando, a sensitive young aristocrat of precocity and beauty, is born into the age of Elizabeth I. He becomes a favorite of the musty old queen, falls into a turbulent affair with a Russian princess (lived out mainly on the frozen Thames during the great ice fair of 1608) and is sent as ambassador to Constantinople, where he falls asleep male and awakens some days later, now an equally bewitching female . . . and then on to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (and on stage, the 21st), experiencing love, society, poetry and self, now from the other side of gender.
The novel is lightness itself, but with the weight of history and ideas. It has been called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” drawing on Woolf’s view of her beloved Vita Sackville-West, even celebrating Vita’s love relationships with others.
How could you possibly dramatize this on stage? They don’t. Unseam’d Shakespeare and director Robert C.T. Steele simply break the rules, not dramatizing conflict or emotion so much as narrating it, with a cast of five acting out bits and pieces along the way.
The adaptation is by Sarah Ruhl, a playwright with (tellingly) a background as poet and what John Lahr once called in the New Yorker, “a poised, crystalline style about things that are irrational and invisible.” She is the perfect collaborator for what is basically a narrative prose poem.
The Heymann Theatre stage makes this clear, looking mainly like the pages of a book, or perhaps a sail, dressed from time to time with scenic projections and a swirl of projected words, like tiles from a lifelong word game. I wish the words weren’t so faint, but they are intriguing, nonetheless.
As Orlando, Amy Landis pretty much tells her own tale. A chorus of three – Andy Kirtland, Brett Sullivan Santry and Jonathan Visser – morphs from one character to another, while Lisa Ann Goldsmith plays Orlando’s chief objects of passion.
You could call it a form of story theater, drenched in words. The telling is reminiscent of “The Fantasticks” or even (in incidents and satiric tone) of “Candide,” but without the music of either. Instead, “Orlando” burrows inside love and words, exploring the heart.
In the title role, Ms. Landis has a huge job, talking, talking, talking, but glowing with a luminosity of language and feeling. Her innocence is especially delicious – everything is a surprise, generally delightful.
Ms. Goldsmith is a compelling beloved, generally still and inscrutable. I wish the text featured her more.
The three-man chorus (Ruhl says it could be male or female, and as many as eight) works very hard, deepening the sea of words in which Orlando swims. Mr. Visser excels at naughty insinuation, and Mr. Santry is a wonderfully implausible Queen Elizabeth I.
“Orlando” lasts less than 90 minutes. Sometimes it feels like more, as the sea of words rises and falls, but it also feels like less, when you find yourself sharing your heart.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.