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Theater Review: “Orlando” at WSC Avant Bard

The Arlington troupe stages an intriguing adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending novel.

Amanda Forstrom and Sara Barker in Orlando. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography.

The 21st century is about the only recent time period the title character of Orlando doesn’t venture into during his (and her) multi-century romp through the years. Despite this, there’s a certain modern freshness to this take on Virginia Woolf’s story of a man who wakes up halfway through his life to find he’s now a woman.

Sharply adapted for the stage by playwright Sarah Ruhl and performed by WSC Avant Bard, this version of the tale injects more humor and a certain lightheartedness into the proceedings. While two formidable performers have been cast in the meaty roles of Orlando and Sasha, his/her first true love, the rest of the parts are handled by a facile Greek chorus (Andrew Ferlo, Jay Hardee, and Mario Baldessari). This means it isn’t just Orlando who gets to play around with ideas of gender, as the three men make quick, and often amusing, transitions from servants to countesses to suitors.

Director Amber Jackson spikes these moments with rapid costume changes and interesting lighting tricks (the scene of Orlando’s transition from man to woman is captured nicely and dramatically behind a shadowy sheet). Starting in the 1500s and ending in the 20th century, Orlando has a lot of ground to cover. But the production moves swiftly—so much so that it can race past some intriguing plot points; a riot here, some gypsies there. It keeps up with Orlando as he seduces the royal court and ice-skates with Russian royalty (and then as a woman confronts domesticity and embraces poetry).

Speaking of Russian princesses, Amanda Forstrom is a lively and alluring presence as Sasha, Orlando’s companion on his early adventures. But the show belongs to Sara Barker in the title role. Barker has an effortless way of communicating the idea that despite her character’s major changes, Orlando is the same person deep down. The immersive performance is nuanced, convincing, and just fun to watch.

Orlando’s thoughtful musings on the challenges and limitations of womanhood may not have quite the pertinence they did when the play was written nearly a hundred years ago. It’s easy to be sympathetic to the initial boredom and general helplessness Orlando feels in her early days of womanhood (especially when thinking of the autobiographical ties to Woolf herself), even if it might not be quite relatable. But the idea of taking a certain ownership of one’s gender remains interesting and relevant, especially during a time when society is able to more directly confront ideas of gender fluidity.

Orlando is at Theater on the Run through March 23. Running time is about 90 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($25 to $45) are available via WSC Avant Bard’s website.