‘Orlando’ highlights role of Greek chorus

Orlando
Photo by Adrian Rodriguez.

A senior project this week will explore questions of professional, gender and romantic identity through the story of a man who turns into a woman during a life that spans five centuries.

“Orlando,” a play by Sarah Ruhl, a lecturer at the School of Drama and Theatre Studies Department, is a dramatic adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando: A Biography.” Orlando is a young man born in Elizabethan England who lives in several centuries and geographic regions, all while struggling with questions of artistry, romance, and gender and sexuality. The production focuses on the significance of the time changes in the play, and experiments with narration through the Greek chorus.

Bonnie Antosh ’13 said she knew “Orlando” would be a perfect senior project after seeing a performance of the play at the Yale Repertory Theatre as a freshman. She added that Ruhl has always been one of her favorite playwrights, and that seeing “Orlando” performed both reflected and transformed her conception of an ideal senior project for the theatre studies major. The Rep’s production, she said, prompted her to consider deeply the poetic dialogue between Woolf and Ruhl, as well as how certain theater productions can engage with the audience.

Antosh said Ruhl’s Greek chorus — an element of the play not present in the novel — transgresses an audience’s expectation of a chorus by combining dialogue, monologues, soliloquies and speeches made directly to the audience. This cast interpreted the chorus members as the narrators of Orlando’s biography, observers who know Orlando so well that they also serve as participants in the story, Antosh said.

Eric Sirakian ’15 said these roles require the four chorus actors to switch rapidly between being a narrator and a character. Antosh said Ruhl encouraged her to keep the chorus small, though the text suggests between three and eight members, to allow actors to develop the ability to transform themselves quickly and adapt as characters to different worlds.

Sirakian, for example, plays Queen Elizabeth, Othello, an old maid and several minor roles such as a street drunkard and a Russian seaman. He said the challenge of playing female roles forced him to enter characters’ minds and seek to understand their thoughts before worrying about their physical movements and vocalizations — he needed to understand them as humans before thinking of them as men or women.

Sirakian said director Willa Fitzgerald ’13 chose not to divide the chorus lines among the four chorus members when the team first began work. She wanted the chorus to learn all the lines, allowing her to decide how to divide them after seeing each actor’s individual approach, he explained. While each chorus member now knows roughly which lines to say, the line assignments are not official and are open to improvisation, Antosh said.

Antosh explained that this weekend’s production emphasizes the play’s theme of time. The stage is set up as a long narrow strip similar to a runway, with the audience flanking both sides, which is meant to evoke the image of a timeline, she said, adding that Ruhl provides a “more manageable, streamlined” version of Woolf’s story, without sacrificing the whimsicality, playfulness and satire of the original text. The fleeting nature of live theater — as performed in a discrete chunk — also reinforces the importance of time within the play, she said.

“Orlando” quotes Woolf’s text while making slight modifications at points, said Lucy Fleming ’16, who plays Sasha and a chorus member and is reading both the novel and play now. In the novel, Orlando asks Sasha, a Russian princess with whom he is in a relationship, to elope with him, but Sasha abandons him. In the play, it is she who proposes their elopement, making her subsequent flight more mysterious, Fleming said.

“What’s so magical about Ruhl is that being a poet herself, she’s taken the lines from [Woolf’s] ‘Orlando’ that are the most poetic — not the most dramatic, but the most poetic,” Fleming said. “It’s kind of like reading a rainbow.”

Recent attention to Ruhl, whose work “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)” was performed April 3-6 by the Dramat, is not surprising given her presence at Yale and widespread popularity across the nation, Sirakian said.

Antosh, Sirakian and Fleming all emphasized the lush imagery of Ruhl’s language.

“[Ruhl’s] stories are told outside of the style of naturalism, but ring true about the way people ache and love and grow,” Antosh said.

Antosh added that the vivid imagery of the text also provides the production’s design team the opportunity to create a saturated, stylized set. Producer Irene Casey ’14 said the show uses lights, sound and projection in visually striking ways. For example, a tree — meant to reflect the subject of Orlando’s poem, which he struggles to write for 500 years — is not simply a naturalistic tree, but rather one enhanced by projection and lights, Casey said.

Still, the production aims to balance its imagistic whimsicality with room for imagination on the audience’s part, Casey said.

“We’re not creating hyper realistic representations of these things,” Casey said. “It’s letting imagination take them away.”

“Orlando” will play Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Whitney Humanities Center theater.

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