Shortly after she completed To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf began to imagine a new sort of book, a fanciful memoir that would spoof the sincere biographies her father had written. “It might be most amusing,” she confided to her diary. “The question is how to do it.” She answered that question in the form of the 1928 novel Orlando, now adapted by Sarah Ruhl in a story-theater style that preserves the writer’s playful cadences and much of her wit. A fantastical history of her friend and paramour, Vita Sackville-West, the book concerns Orlando, an Elizabethan nobleman who courts a Russian princess, writes awful verse dramas, mysteriously alters his sex, and lives several centuries beyond the allotted three score and 10 years.
At Classic Stage Company, director Rebecca Taichman has staged the adaptation elegantly, but an air of preciosity shadows the proceedings: Christopher Akerlind supplies lovely lighting, Anita Yavich lively costumes, Annie-B Parson sweetly quirky choreography, Allen Moyer an agreeable set that serves the CSC space better than most. But in spite—or, more likely, because—of all these charming elements, the play never really lives. It’s pleasant to look at and just as nice to hear, but it never threatens to engage the audience emotionally—or intellectually, for that matter.
Everything plays out in the same polite fairy-tale manner—a whirl of gilded furniture, genial epigrams, and doll-size tea sets. Even Orlando’s sudden transformation from man to woman doesn’t register as anything too extraordinary, though one can’t fault the spirited actress Francesca Faridany, who consents to strip naked at the moment of revelation. Her inamorata, Sasha (Annika Boras), and the chorus of three men (David Greenspan, Tom Nelis, and Howard Overshown) who play the other parts, all seem to enjoy their roles, particularly Greenspan, who, as Queen Elizabeth and a Romanian countess, is permitted to mug extravagantly. But even his grimaces and puckerings never penetrate the show’s remorseless prettiness.
Nearing completion of the manuscript, Woolf described Orlando as “a writer’s holiday” and “all a joke.” But this is a joke that Taichman and her cast take altogether too seriously.