“Orlando — isn’t that the Virginia Woolf novel about some kind of gender switch?” That’s what I asked Mary Plant-Thomas, who is directing the Elements Theatre Collective’s upcoming production of Orlando, which has been adapted for the stage by playwright Sarah Ruhl. “Orlando is a man,” she told me, “until he turns 30 and becomes a woman.” So I was right? “Kind of, but I prefer to look at it as a three-part sequence in which Orlando begins as a man, learns what it is to live as a woman, and in the end becomes a person,” said Plant-Thomas, neatly inserting the missing link between mere gender switching and the universality that’s at the heart of Woolf’s appeal.
And how will that appeal, which is tied in with Woolf’s uncanny ability to get inside the heads of her characters, translate to the stage, where so much must be communicated by what’s on the surface? After all, the biggest problem with dramatizing Orlando — one even more challenging than having the same actor play two different genders — is that the original text is made up primarily of narration not dialogue. Ruhl’s brilliant solution borrows equally from the conventions of ancient Greek tragedy and the excitement of improvisational comedy. Rather than removing Woolf’s narration and replacing it with made-up dialogue, Ruhl has simply transferred whole chunks of the narrator’s prose into the joint custody of a flexible-sized chorus. “There can be anywhere from three to 10 chorus members, and they can be of any gender,” said Plant-Thomas, adding that Ruhl’s decision to leave this up to each individual production indicated the playwright’s intent that the show “not be done in the same way every time.”
Rehearsing the chorus, which in this production will be played by Rob Grayson, Stephanie Farnum, and Erika Leachman, thus becomes a complex process, as each passage involves deciding where and when to change voices. The chorus members must each play several other roles, as well, and even when they stand together, they like to break their narrative speeches apart, sometimes into fragments as small as single words. It’s this dynamic byplay that reintroduces Woolf’s teasing, satirical tone. Morgan Altenhoff rounds out the supporting cast as Sasha, Orlando’s Russian princess love interest from when he was a man back in the 17th century.
Orlando will be played by the director’s real-life sister, Tess Plant-Thomas, who auditioned just like everyone else for the chance to become a man, then a woman, and then a person, all while changing clothes onstage and wearing lots of Elizabethan garb. “I didn’t even know she would be on the West Coast when we scheduled the show,” said Mary Plant-Thomas, the director, adding that she’s delighted with the way that Tess has been bearing up under the pressure of rehearsals.
With Elements Theatre Collective, the venues play an important part of every production, primarily because there are so many of them — nine separate locations this time around — but also because they put such a burden on the producer, Sarah Jane Bennett, who is also the lighting designer. “Someone has to check to see if there’s enough electric outlets,” said Bennett, who will travel from Goleta to Carpinteria and back during the course of the show’s run.
Orlando will be at Java Station July 11 and 12 at 8 p.m., at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara on July 13 at 8 p.m., at Casa Esperanza on July 17 at 7 p.m., at the Piano Kitchen on July 18 and 19 at 8 p.m., at McDermott-Crockett Mortuary on July 20 at 8 p.m., behind the Santa Barbara Art Foundry on July 24 at 8 p.m., at the Carpinteria Woman’s Club on July 25 at 8 p.m., at Divinitree on July 26 at 8 p.m., and at Better Days Yoga on July 27 at 2 p.m. All performances are free and open to the public. For info, visit elementstc.org.