Monday, November 9, 2015

Orlando—Profile Theatre—SW Portland

Ages of Man

This avant-garde, dark comedy is written by Sarah Ruhl, based on a novel by Virginia Woolf and directed by Matthew B. Zrebski.  It is playing at the Artists Rep. space, SW Alder St. & 16th Ave. through November 22nd.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-242-0080.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live hundreds of years and experience all the changes the world had to offer?  But, except for Vampires, and some prophets from the Old Testament, that is not likely to happen.  That is, except for Orlando.  He not only survives (for some unknown reason) for 500 plus years but also changes gender.  That is, what I would call, fully experiencing Life.

Virginia Woolf wrote a novel on this subject, which was made into a rather good film in the early 90’s, with Tilda Swinton as the title character.  Ruhl’s play is presented in a story-telling theatre style on an essentially bare stage with the actors not only doing dialogue but also commenting on and relating the action of the story.  Orlando is played by Beth Thompson with four other actors playing all the other characters and a type of Greek Chorus, which narrates and underscores the tale.

It begins innocently enough, with Orlando simply sitting under an Oak tree some 500 years ago, trying to write a poem.  But he soon gets swept up the aristocracy of the period when the Queen (Elizabeth Rothan) takes a liking to him and lavishes him with land, money and gifts.  But the Queen is a jealous goddess and will stand for no other rivals in her house.  So, when Orlando is smitten with a Russian skater, Princess Sasha (Crystal Muñoz), and plans to run away with her, the Queen is not a happy camper.

But, dash the luck, the skater seems a bit on the flighty side and decides to return to her own country without him.  And, somewhere along Life’s journey of several years, Orlando falls into a deep sleep and when he awakens, he is a woman…but in a man’s body and with the same memories of his Past.  He then meets a rather silly Arch-Dutchess (Ted Rooney) who is vying for her (his?) attentions.  Finally, after some more gyrations, she meets what is probably her true love in Marmaduke (Ben Newman), as she feels she has known him before.  How it all turns out, you’ll just have to see.

This is only the barest of a thumbnail sketch of the story because the power lies not in the facts but in how they are related.  Woolf’s/Ruhl’s language is poetry in motion and the superb cast is the product of that endeavor.  The stylized presentation is almost dance-like at times and may be a distant cousin to the Japanese Noh way of theatre.  Only essential props are used and many of them only skeletons of the actual objects, the actors change character, relying little on costuming but heavy on their own unique talents of creation.  And the narrative style of relating the story makes you feel you are turning the pages of a book and letting your mind interpret the proceedings.  All told, quite a feat!

Zrebski certainly has the command of the stage at his disposal and a solid understand of the material.  He has also chosen his cast very well as they are all up to such a unique challenge.  Rooney’s Duchess (and Duke) are a scream.  His vocal tics stopped the show at times with laughter, as they were so damn funny.  Rothan is delightfully evil as the Queen and a little scary to see how absolute power can corrupt.  Muñoz is perfectly lovely and convincing as the skater and is always an asset to the many varied roles/productions she has been in.  Newman, as Orlando’s soul mate, gives a heartfelt performance and one’s wishes that all of us could meet that magic someone who might be just around the corner.

And Thompson, what a powerful depiction of this very complicated and conflicted character.  She is absolutely marvelous!  Not only is she onstage the whole time but, with almost no alterations, goes from being a male to a female and convinces you of both.  And, in a part that could have been overdone or exaggerated, she prefers to, like a thief in the night, slip in and of her role with barely a whisper of the passing of time or gender.  Bravo!

Also, is this story a subtle way of informing us that gender identity comes from within, which is the resting place of our true nature?  I think so.  And, another point about Woolf’s writing, which is somewhat relevant here.  She was famous for writing in a stream-of-conscious way, meaning letting us in on what the character is thinking as each second goes by.

In the play by Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the two main characters engage in a game of make-believe to survive.  At the end, when the games are over, George sings to Martha from the title of the play and she admits that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Now, substitute the word “reality” for Woolf’s name and you see what she is really afraid of.  Is this a theme, too, of the play, that we are afraid of who we really are and showing it?  Possibly.

I recommend this play but, be aware, there is full nudity in it and adult situations.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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