Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Theater review - Orlando - Theatre Pro Rata - A Whimsical Journey Across Time and Gender - 4.5 stars

I haven’t been getting out to see and review theater much over the past two years.  But deciding to go see this production was easy.

It’s Theatre Pro Rata
producing Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation
of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando.

Those are the only three reasons I need.

If you need any more convincing than that, read on.

It is the fanciful story of a person named Orlando (Courtney Stirn) who starts life as a young man in the late 1500s in England.  Queen Elizabeth is taken by his youth and beauty and takes him back to the royal court with her, conferring power, wealth and privilege on him.  He attempts to write poetry, and catches the eye of many eligible women younger than the Queen.  He breaks his share of hearts while also having his own heart broken.  Then at the age of 30 (right before intermission), Orlando transforms into a woman.  And then lives a few hundred more years into the 1920s.  Needless to say, this is an adjustment, being unbound by time, while being bound to ideas and expectations of different genders across time.

“And the flower bloomed and faded, and the sun rose and set.”

There was a film adaptation of this story back in 1992, directed by Sally Potter and introducing me to lead actress Tilda Swinton for the first time. (Yes, this was 30 years ago, and as I am not unbound by time… you can do the math.  Tilda Swinton, uncannily, looks the same today as she did then).  I mention the film because this was the thing that first made me fall in love with this story, because I had a most unusual experience as an audience member.  When I realized the movie was drawing to a close, I was genuinely sad, because I was having such a good time, I wanted the story to just keep going.  

“He felt the need of something to attach his heart to.”

Audiences will have a similar experience with Sarah Ruhl’s version of Orlando and the way Theatre Pro Rata brings it to life.  I’m a huge fan of Ruhl’s writing and she’s a perfect match to retell Woolf’s tale for the stage.  Orlando is lyrical, sexy, sad, whimsical, funny, and always thought-provoking.  You will want to spend more time in their company.

“The great wings of silence beat up and down the empty house.”

I keep having the urge to say Orlando is a simple production, but not only is that kind of insulting but it’s also not true.  It just looks like a simple production but in fact there’s a ton of work going on here from all involved.  They just make it look easy as it glides elegantly along.

“In all the time she was writing, the world continued.”

For instance, the setting designed by MJ Leffler.  It looks like the production creates a myriad of locations across almost four hundred years of history with nothing more than a tree, a table, two chairs, and a long, cushioned bench that can double as a bed.  But the tree is enormous.  While it’s clearly flat and not a three-dimensional fully formed tree, the thing towers over the stage, looking vaguely like a hooded figure when you catch it out of the corner of your eye.  How it remains solidly upright is quite an impressive feat of engineering.

“Frozen roses fell in showers.”

And those four other items of furniture are accessorized by a whole panoply of props and other whimsical elements designed by Rachel Krieger.  These additional touches as much as anything help set time and place in the sprawling story.  When Orlando and the Russian princess Sasha mime skating down a frozen river through a winter landscape, two members of the ensemble hold up small cut-outs of evergreen trees of various sizes, passing them back and forth to one another, handing them off behind their backs, to indicate movement.  When Sasha later abandons Orlando to sail back to her home country, a cutout of a boat is carried by one cast member through a sea of icebergs large and small, held by other ensemble members, bobbing in the imaginary waves.

“Clothes change our view of the world, and the world’s view of us.”

The other thing doing a lot of heavy lifting carrying us through time and space are the colorful costumes designed by Mandi Johnson.  They set the period while also giving the visual canvas regular splashes of color, and offering visual signifiers of characters as the actors swiftly transition from one role to the next across Orlando’s life – Sasha’s fur coat and cap, Queen Elizabeth’s high collar, a sea captain’s jacket, the way Orlando goes from being very much a man of one time to being a woman of another.

“Death?  Oh, that’s nothing really.  Just a prick in the sides.”

Emmet Kowler’s lighting design and Jake Davis’ sound design are both subtle and evocative, opening up the audience’s eyes and ears and then focusing them down in key moments in ways it can be easy to overlook, but the whole production wouldn’t be nearly as good without them.  And given the number of balls in the air that need to be juggled, in setting up, running and then re-setting the show at night’s end, stage manager Clara Costello must feel like she, too, lives over 300 years for every performance.

“Don’t go!  I’ve much to tell you, and much to ask.”

Director Carin Bratlie Wethern has once again gathered and guided a great ensemble of actors to create this endearingly peculiar story – company members, regular collaborators and brand new faces alike.  She is ably assisted in this task by dialect coach Keely Wolter, dramaturg Gina Musto, and gender consultant Shira Gitlin, who all are responsible for key pieces of the puzzle.

“I was left the only survivor, on a raft, holding a biscuit.”

And of course, the cast, playing dozens of characters over the centuries of Orlando’s life, sometimes only getting a couple of lines to create a whole person. Trickier still is the balance between presenting the narrative voice of Ruhl channeling Woolf always reminding the audience they’re watching a story, and then turning on a dime and living fully within the life of a human character and taking the audience along for the emotional ride.  It’s a thrilling trick to watch them pull off again and again.

“Orland turned hot, turned cold, longed to crush acorns beneath his feet.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t specially call out Courtney Stirn’s work in the title role of Orlando.  I’m surprised I’ve missed their work up until now, they’re not brand new to the Twin Cities theater scene.  But I’m so happy I got to seem them in this role and very much look forward to seeing them in whatever they do next.  The production wouldn’t work without a great Orlando, and Stirn is great.  The core of who Orlando is as a human being carries over from their time on earth as a man, into the latter phase of their life as a woman, even as they play the differing roles society demands of them in the two sets of skin (and wardrobe of clothes) they wear.  It’s a real kick to watch them work this transformative magic.

“Love has two faces and two bodies.”

Equally impressive is the work of the ensemble backing up Orlando and populating the many worlds they live in - Ankita Ashrit, Amber Bjork, Rachel Flynn, Ninchai Nok-Chiclana, Nissa Nordland Morgan, Michael Quadrozzi, Emily Rosenberg, and Andrew Troth. Everyone gets their turn in the spotlight, often several, in key roles across Orlando’s story.  There’s Bjork’s previously mentioned Russian princess; Flynn as a relentless suitor Orlando can’t seem to shake whether they’re a man or a woman; Ashrit as one of the many female hearts Orlando breaks as a young swain; Troth’s kindly but bewildered sea captain; Nok-Chiclana and Rosenberg doing the whole “play within a play thing” as Othello and Desdemona; Nordland Morgan’s formidable and hilarious Queen Elizabeth; and Quadrozzi as the man who wins Orlando’s female heart, marries her, and is the last person she thinks of before death.

“I am about to understand.”

Sometimes it’s more difficult to write about a good show than a bad one.  If nothing’s wrong, do you end up talking about everything?  I could go on.

But to keep it simple, and not to go on any longer: It’s a great production of a great stage adaptation of a great story.  You should go.

Theatre Pro Rata’s production of Orlando runs through March 27, 2022 at the Crane Theater (2303 Kennedy Street NE,

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

Theatre Pro Rata requires photo ID and Proof of Full Vaccination or a negative Covid test within 72 hours for all audience members, staff, and artists. Proof of Full Vaccination can be your vaccination card, a photo of your vaccination card, or a digital record of your vaccination on a smart phone app. More information about Theatre Pro Rata’s COVID safety protocols is posted online

[Photos: top - Courtney Stirn as Orlando and Amber Bjork as Sasha; lower down - Courtney Stirn as Orlando (center) with chorus (l to r) Andrew Troth, Nissa Nordland Morgan, Amber Bjork, and Ankita Ashrit – photography by Alex Wohlhueter]

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