History And Gender Are Up For Grabs In Muhlenberg’s Joyful ‘Orlando’

Virginia Woolf‘s groundbreaking tale takes the stage April 28 to explore what we mean when we talk about identity, gender, poetry, and love

Allentown, Pa. (April 12, 2011) — “Orlando,” the final play in Muhlenberg College’s Mainstage Theatre & Dance season, traverses three centuries of European history—doing so through the introspective lens of a would-be poet who changes gender and lives for hundreds of years. Based on the influential novel by Virginia Woolf, the play tackles difficult issues of gender and of how we create art, says James Peck, who directs the production.

“But it will also be a rollicking good time,” he says.

“It’s incredibly funny and beautiful,” says Peck, chair of Muhlenberg’s Theatre & Dance Department and professor of theater. “It’s very emotional, a great love story.”

Adapted for the stage by Sarah Ruhl from Woolf’s 1928 “Orlando: A Biography,” “Orlando” tells the story of an ageless, privileged man who begins life in 16th century England. He lives through the 17th century, falls asleep, and wakes up in the 18th century as a woman.

“She is still Orlando in the mind, just in a new body,” says Anna Gothard, a senior at Muhlenberg who plays the title character.

“Orlando” runs April 28 through May 1, in Muhlenberg’s Baker Theatre. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.

As a young man, Orlando desperately wants to become a poet. However, he is called to serve in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. After a series of lovers, including an intriguing Russian princess, Sasha (played by Rachel Berger), Orlando escapes to Constantinople. There, in the midst of political turmoil, Orlando falls into a deep slumber, waking several days later to find that she is now a woman.

“The message is quite serious and political,” Peck says. “It is a very feminist play. When she becomes a woman, she loses the privileges of masculinity, but she gains greater sensitivity to life’s struggles. This leads to her becoming a better writer, worth other people hearing.”

The play encourages audiences to examine which social roles are determined by biology and which have been constructed by society.

“It will hopefully make you leave the theater with a new attitude on gender or art,” Gothard says. “What is gender? What is woman, man, and in-between?”

Woolf’s novel is based loosely on the life of her lover, Vita Sackville-West. The book’s genre is difficult to place, Peck says. Woolf referred to it as a biography, but its fanciful elements—Orlando’s centuries-long lifespan and overnight sex change, for example—keep it on the shelves of fiction.

The novel was adapted into a play in 2003 by Sarah Ruhl, a Tony Award-nominated contemporary playwright, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. Muhlenberg’s production of the play is among the first ever and is a regional premiere.

In addition to the characters of Orlando and Sasha, the play features about 20 other characters, portrayed by a chorus of nine actors. Each chorus member portrays multiple characters, often bending the constraints of gender. The entire cast is on stage for most of the play, which has proved to be an exciting directorial challenge, Peck says.

“They are the most professional chorus I have ever worked with,” Gothard says. “They are just as important as Orlando in discovering things about love, gender and sexuality—both as characters and as actors.”

The cast’s greatest challenge, according to Gothard, has been to carry Orlando and the rest of the characters convincingly through more than 300 years of history. The actors have been working with Marla Burkholder, a Philadelphia-based dialect coach, actor, and teaching artist, who has helped them to make clear choices about how they walk and talk from one era to the next.

“We’ve been doing a lot of research on how people moved through the centuries,” Gothard says. “Our inflections have to change as our costumes change.”

The set for the production is designed by Curtis Dretsch, professor of theater design. It includes a teardrop-shaped platform that rotates to show the passage of time, and curtains made from more than four miles of rope.

“There is great with mobility and fluidity in the set,” Peck says. “It will be very beautiful.”

Also helping to show the passage of time is an original musical score, composed by Muhlenberg music professor Doug Ovens.

“Doug’s music carries the play through the centuries,” Peck says. “He has created a procession of musical styles that conjure the sound of each century. He samples, imitates, rewrites, and combines motifs from Monteverdi to Beethoven to Ellington. But in the end the music is all Ovens—full of wit, intelligence and feeling.”

Orlando will be the final role of Gothard’s college acting career—the Bangor native graduates this May. It has also been her most difficult role, she says, and her most satisfying.

“It’s the biggest part I’ve ever had,” she says. “It has the most to think about, but it’s the coolest challenge in the whole world. Every day, after four hours of rehearsal, I feel so rewarded.”

Peck says Gothard has more than risen to the occasion. “It’s a tour de force role for her,” he says.

A film version of “Orlando” was produced in 1992, directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton and Billy Zane. Unlike the film, which focused on the darker aspects of the tale, Peck says the play adaptation is cheerful and bright.

“It has love and sex and joy and life,” he says. “It’s the perfect play for spring.”

“Orlando” performances are Thursday through Saturday, April 28-30, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 1, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for patrons 17 and under. The production is recommended for mature audiences. Performances are in the Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre, in the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.

“Orlando” performance information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 or http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre.