Enjoyably Odd and Oddly Enjoyable: ORLANDO

Photo credit: Bad Habit Productions

Photo credit: Bad Habit Productions

Presented by Bad Habit Productions
Virgina Woolf’s Orlando
Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Daniel Morris

April 4-April 19, 2014
Deane Hall at the Boston Center for the Arts
Boston, MA
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Review by Noelani Kamelamela

(Boston, MA) Identity and discovery are heavily explored in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a work that spans continents, time, and gender.  Initially written as a joke of a biography for a fellow artist in the early 20th century, this more recent adaptation puts Woolf’s language forward while sacrificing character development.  This complex creation scratches the surface of a meaty, subtle series of discussions even the novel Orlando could not fully deliver.

While the prose is beautiful, it is also distancing and somewhat cold.  As written, Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation is focused on plot and language, and only alludes to an artist’s struggle to create universal masterworks when considered as a whole.  Time travel or progress as felt by an artist as well as inner and outward transformation rendered in metaphor makes the boundaries of distinct eras, genders and cultures almost meaningless.

In an intimate space at the BCA, this Orlando is most enjoyable when potentially at its most confusing.  The blending of time periods, zeitgeists and archetypes is easiest for the audience to absorb when the mood is lightened and the pace is quick.  The actors, set, props and costumes are repurposed every few minutes in a way that seemed comical at first, but became a part of the rhythm of the show.  Many items onstage are suggestive of the past in an appropriate manner.

Theresa Nguyen as Orlando is a wide-eyed innocent amongst so many wolves, boring acquaintances and false friends.  Nguyen’s Orlando retains a playfulness when others may have chosen to exude a world weariness after so long, in theory, over the course of the play.  The cast here is working very hard, playing several roles and functions as both cast and crew, but I never saw them sweat or stumble.  The accent work and physical acting is commendable.

The show is a well choreographed dance for the most part with well chosen lighting, modular set pieces and atmospheric sound design, but even impressive technical elements can’t save the end of the piece.  Its a sloppy ending, which is probably more Ruhl’s fault than Woolf’s or even Bad Habit’s, that aroused at least one person in the audience enough to leave in a huff before final curtain.  I felt awkwardly caught between applauding for that wayward soul and focusing on the action as hard as I could because I was still curious as to whether the actors could turn these awkward moments into something better.  For my tastes, they didn’t, but they valiantly tried anyway.

At around two hours with a ten minute intermission, this show really doesn’t feel long enough to be an adaptation of any of Virginia Woolf’s work.  For people who have read the novel, there are some massive shortcuts that Ruhl takes to get to something that resembles an ending. The highlights are plenty worth it, and I’d still recommend this Orlando especially for those who appreciate non-conventional storytelling and fables.

Bad Habit Productions is also presenting a family production O, Ship! Aboard the Ship! in repertory in the same space from April 11 to April 18. For their ninth season titled “To Face Ourselves,” Bad Habit is planning to do three plays on the mainstage:  The Goat or Who is Sylvia? in August, Six Degrees of Separation in November and Speech and Debate coming in March 2016.

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