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The Carletonian

Theater Department’s fall production: A review of “Orlando”

From Oct. 19 through Oct. 22, Carleton’s theater and dance department performed five showings of Sarah Ruhl’s 2010 “Orlando,” based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same name. The production was directed by visiting assistant professor of theater Jeanne Willcoxon.

Although it was written almost 100 years ago, the themes brought up in “Orlando” are relevant to today’s modern audience. The original novel is framed as a drawn-out love letter to Woolf’s friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Sackville-West is credited as the main inspiration for the titular character, Orlando, but the novel’s surreal plot relies on a healthy helping of creative liberty. Beyond its superficial whimsy, the narrative explores real-world themes such as subjectivity and truth, gender and society and identity and transformation. 

Throughout the play, the audience follows a young boy, Orlando, as he matures, explores love in a multitude of meanings and changes genders. Spanning across countries and centuries, this play is at once a humorous and a deeply profound investigation of the self. As I found my seat in the Weitz theater last weekend, I was scarcely prepared for the wild journey on which I was about to embark for the next 90 minutes. 

While the din of excited pre-show chatter filled the air, audience members looked out upon a watercolor backdrop whose yellows, oranges and purples were reminiscent of a pleasant pastel sunset. Complimentary golden-orange and faint blue lighting shone down upon the stage. The black floor of the stage was painted with teal, white and gray to create a texture resembling fractured ice. Marking the edge of this painted portion of the stage — just a few feet away from the front row — were a variety of square stools serving as the primary props for the show. 

The lighting focused on center stage, revealing the ensemble-chorus draped elegantly across each other to frame the title card projected on the backdrop, which read: “The Elizabethan Age.” As the play progressed across hundreds of years, each time period was introduced in the same manner.

Those in the chorus — Ella Rogers ’24, Phi Rapacz ’24, Campbell Pflaum ’27, Defne Arat ’27, Tosh Le ’24, Jack Bartlett ’27, Kaelyn Rothe ’26, Maya Khesin ’24 and Nicholas Vlahos-Sten ’26 — played a variety of characters, ranging from Queen Elizabeth I to a Russian sailor. Despite the myriad of characters they would embody, the chorus remained in their simple opening costumes that would have been considered undergarments in the Elizabethan era: cream skirts, stockings and corsets. 

Amidst this sea of muted cream fabrics was a figure clad in bold red velvets: Orlando, played by Brie Sloves ’24. We are introduced to the titular character when he is 16 and intent on capturing the beauty of a certain oak tree through poetry. He is not very good at it, eliciting laughter from the audience when he attempts to describe the surrounding landscape, saying, “the green of the grass, the green of the grass…/ The greeny greeny green of the grass.”

His poetic aspirations are interrupted by a blaring trumpet announcing the arrival of Queen Elizabeth, played by Rogers. Attached to Rogers’ cream costume was a flowing green cape, starkly contrasting with Orlando’s red outfit. The complementary nature of these colors foreshadowed the connection between the queen and Orlando as Orlando was subsequently invited to the court. 

As Orlando lounged at the queen’s feet, two chorus members orbited around them, marking the passage of time like the moon and sun. There were many such instances when the chorus members themselves acted as props which grounded the setting or enhanced the scene. 

Later on in the play, when Orlando encounters an archduchess of Romania, played by Le, other chorus members observe a “passion of some sort” within Orlando. Building upon the central metaphor of love falling upon someone like a bird landing upon their shoulder, the chorus members described this new feeling as “Lust: the vulture.” The pair of chorus members narrating this scene let their heads fall on Orlando’s shoulders, illustrating that the vulture now rests upon Orlando. 

A pivotal scene of this play is Orlando’s metamorphosis: in Constantinople at the age of 30, he falls into a seven-day trance and awakens as a woman. From this moment on, gender becomes a central theme in Orlando’s experience as she experiences the penalties and privileges of being a woman. She faces new opportunities, such as the social acceptability of crying in public, as well as new challenges, such as losing her property.

While critiquing gender-based ownership customs, this scene invites humor to the situation. When Orlando arrives home, her maid greets her with a confused crooning of “m’lord — er, m’lady? M’lord? M’lady?” Orlando’s staff quickly accept the disorienting change, with one even remarking that “I’ve always had my suspicions.” 

When Orlando meets Sasha, one of the main love interests in this play and portrayed by Arat, Orlando is still a man — in fact, a man engaged to someone else. This, too, is played humorously. While Sasha casually drops a singular handkerchief and Orlando dives after it, his fiancée pulls handkerchief after handkerchief out of her skirts while saying, “Orlando, I’ve dropped my handkerchief,” to no avail. Through the deadpan delivery of these lines, Rapacz, who played the spurned fiancée, sold the moment’s hilarity. 

With Sasha, Orlando experiences a new feeling of love and “his manhood woke.” To express the physical aspects of their romantic relationship, Orlando and Sasha simultaneously kiss the air while facing the audience. While they enjoy the throes of young, naive love, their happiness is complicated when Orlando catches Sasha kissing a Russian sailor, also played by Rapacz. The angry red lighting of this scene melts away as Orlando concedes that he’s just a “jealous fool.” But perhaps he should have erred on the side of caution, because by nightfall, Sasha will leave Orlando for good. 

The opening chorus ended with Orlando lamenting “I am alone” as the chorus members retreated. At the start of the 17th century, it is revealed that Sasha has betrayed Orlando, fleeing the country on a ship and forsaking their plan to elope. Again Orlando cries, “I am alone.” However, as a woman in the 18th century, Orlando triumphantly repeats this phrase when she rids herself of a bothersome archduke by shoving a toad down the archduke’s shirt, causing him to flee in distress. Loneliness is referenced multiple times in this play as both an isolating and liberating force. 

The chorus remarked that Orlando is “hundreds of years old, though we call them 36.” Centuries bookmark memorable moments for Orlando; in fact, as much as Orlando changes, so, too, do the centuries, leapfrogging from one age to another. This all comes to fruition in the final scene. 

It is the 20th century and Orlando comes home vexed, sick of her current self. She calls for a new self, but the Orlando she wants doesn’t come. “Who, then, am I?” Orlando asks herself. “A woman. A million other things as well,” is her response. Overwhelmed by this feeling of multitude, Orlando returns to her poem of the oak tree that she has been working on for hundreds of years. And while all previous attempts have been futile, this time the words flow. And “as she wrote, the world continued,” informed the choir. Years pass by, maybe minutes, the timeline is unclear and frankly doesn’t matter, because in the end, Orlando finishes and produces a poem which “wanted to be read.” The stroke of midnight chimes: it is the present moment. “I can live again,” Orlando concludes. 

This whirlwind of a play is as curious as it is delightful. As humorous, larger-than-life characters flow in and out of Orlando’s life, Orlando serves as the grounding force of this play, tying together places and people across centuries. Yet even Orlando is a fluid, ever-changing being. By centralizing, and to a certain degree, apotheosizing Orlando, this play celebrates and exalts life as an unpredictable journey rather than a linear progression. At the end of the play, Orlando concludes that she is “a million other things.” Her experience as a man is not diminished or erased; her experience with Sasha is still special to her, despite its bitter end. Every lived experience is with her in the present moment, and that makes Orlando who Orlando is — not their gender, not their current status nor even the current century. 

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About the Contributor
Mileana Borowski
Mileana Borowski, Managing Editor
I am a junior Political Science major who loves to write! I take midday showers, have a professional stunt double (shout out to my identical twin), and I love my stuffed animals maybe a little too much. I have a cactus named The Cliffords and a plant named Francis. If you're having a conversation with me for longer than thirty seconds and I haven't mentioned my dog, please check in because something is probably wrong. Mileana was previously News Editor, Bald Spot Editor and Design Editor.

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