EDITOR IN CHIEF
In the 1920s, famous feminist writer Virginia Woolf engaged in a long romance with a woman: Vita Sackville-West. Both married to men and working as writers during the era, the two found solace and satisfaction in one another’s companionship. Their at-the-time-controversial love was so inspiring to Woolf that she wrote her most famous body of work, “Orlando.”
A century later, UNO Theatre has rehearsed and reinvented the novel into their rendition of the play, as adapted by Sarah Ruhl.
“Orlando” tells the story of the titular character’s transition through time, gender, romance, identity and understanding. Orlando begins the play as a young London lad who most desires to be a brilliant poet during the 1500s. Through faithless romances and adventures in Constantinople, the character lives over centuries, and at 30 years old, takes a weeklong nap and wakes as a woman.
Then, Orlando must navigate the world—from learning just how to pour tea in Victorian England, to proper department store shopping in the beginning of the 20th century—as a woman. More specifically, Orlando must figure out how to exist and understand her existence as a woman who still thinks in the stereotypical trajectory as a man with a sword in his sheath.
Woolf wrote in her diaries in the late 1920s that “Orlando” was entirely inspired by Vita and painted her lover in a fantastical, fictional light, traveling through identity and time in the classic stream of consciousness style of Woolf.
A TIME Magazine article quotes Vita’s son, Nigel Nicholson, saying the book was “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” Other scholars, the article said, considered the book the first “trans novel in the English language.”
Alongside the bold implications of LGBTQ representation in classical literature, the play is brilliantly written. It pushes the boundaries of everyday thought to force the audience into questioning our collective understanding of relationships, reevaluate the things that identify us, and delight in the poetry of it all.
A play of this magnitude and majesty requires killer execution, and UNO’s Jessica Johnson does just that as Orlando. Her vulnerability is on display at every turn, and she demonstrates her character’s gendered traits earnestly. She ambles around on stage with elegance and dominance as both male and female, and I was moved to goose bumps numerous times by her delivery.
This is fitting, since the play is essential to her Masters of Arts in Theatre-Acting. Johnson acted as the lead in partial fulfillment of her graduate thesis.
The rest of the cast also challenges notions of gender, as students of many different gender identities play roles outside of their personal identities. This invigorates ideas of classic theatre tradition, where gender, race and other defining traits are often left at the green room door (ahem, see Hamilton’s history of beautiful interracial casting).
Costumes and stage design are also top-notch, with simple and practical props. Characters adorn and shed gendered clothing throughout, accessorized with bright wigs, puffy pants, “ice skates,” dainty flower crowns and a few pairs of heeled leather boots I want to add to my holiday wish list.
The stage is set with moving wooden boxes, where props like journals, money and costuming items are hidden and revealed throughout the performance with convenience. The backdrop is a peculiarly curated “wunderkammer,” better known as a “cabinet of curiosities.”
The audience sees found objects like crystalized butterflies, bronze sculptures and a hanging alligator, and it all adds to the portrayal of the wondrous, thoughtful world of “Orlando.”
As the audience travels through time and space with a character experiencing the turmoil, treachery and treats of human existence, there is no better place in time and space to be than in the comfort of Weber Fine Arts in the present moment.
Catch “Orlando” Nov. 20-23 and Dec. 4-7. Tickets are free to students with MavCards. For more information visit unotheatre.com.