… another great first act …

The first act of Orlando is a kind of enchantment — like falling in on Prospero’s island.  We are in the 17th Century:  Orlando appears as a swashbuckling young nobleman in a solo sword dance beautifully choreographed by Annie-B Parson.  We go on to follow his adventures, his love adventures, that is — we never see him do much else with the sword.  Much is narrated, with the playwright, Sarah Ruhl, using Virginia Woolf’s words from the novel, which adds to the sense of magical “Once upon a time … “  This is a play about liminality, in gender, in modes of story telling, and in time.  We understand quickly that boundaries are permeable, and everything can change into its other.   It’s a wonderful beginning.

Orlando’s early love conquest is Queen Elizabeth, played by David Greenspan, who hoists around the stage a witty, bare-bones version of that high-ruffed costume we know so well from Elizabeth’s portraits — to say nothing of all those movies.  Soon Greenspan plays another of Orlando’s conquests, a Central European archduchess who — no surprise here — later turns out to be an archduke (one thinks of Count Orlovsky in Der Rosenkavalier), allowing Greenspan to invent even more hilarious and irresistible mannerisms.

Orlando, though, is not only conquering in love but conquered — by Sasha, a Russian princess played with deft delicacy and toughness by Annika Boras (hard to believe this beautiful seductress who skates in from the far North is the same actress who played Electra in Classic Stage’s Oresteia as a thick, dumpy, anguished homeless hag.  Boras is great actress.)

Ultimately disappointed in love by the faithless Sasha, Orlando finds emotional refuge in exotic Istabul where, mysteriously, he falls asleep and wakes having been transformed from a man into a woman.  This is demonstrated when the fine actress who play Orlando, Francesca Faridany, is relieved of her bedclothes and appears fully naked.  That’s a dramatic ending to what has been a visionary and delightful Act 1.

Yet … why such naked drama? the question that pokes its way into enjoyment of the intermission espresso. After all, disappointment in love doesn’t usually lead to gender change.  Nor did we need to see Orlando nude to believe he was male, though he was being played by Ms. Faridany:  why, then, do we need a fully naked Orlando to see that she’s female?  Sarah Ruhl is good at end-of-the-first act visual shock — in her Dead Man’s Cell Phone, there’s the abrupt apparition of a dead man we’ve been hearing a lot about.  Does she feel her second acts are less strong and wants to make sure you come back?

Act 2 shows the now female Orlando returning to England, and whizzing through the 18th and 19th Centuries to the present. The second act loses interest, I think, for two reasons.  Things happen so fast that we loose the character.  Then, the idea is that we learn through now female Orlando something of the difference between being male and being female, but the differences, in the play, are superficial rather than inward.  Now she’s expected to eat small, exquisite portions of food instead of big stuff.  She develops an urge, felt as an itch on the second finger of her left hand, to marry.  Pretty obvious, huh?

The cast is excellent, and the choreographic movement of Annie-B Parson does all it can to enrich the play.  But what’s it really like to have lived both as a man and a woman?  For this, you’d have to ask Teiresias.

Orlando plays at Classic Stage in New York City’s East Village through October 17th.

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