To witness “Orlando,” a senior project for Bonnie Antosh ’13, is to awaken to a tumultuous, feverish dream. Here, he is she and she is he, and the twain shall meet in a production explosive enough to singe even the back rows of the Whitney Theater.
Energy inhabits the slight and nimble Antosh, who alights on the ground as though stepping perpetually on hot coals. She is combustible, sparking and steaming as her character boils with youthful indignation. Antosh careens around the stage like a mad car dispossessed of its driver, daring us to doubt that it is not she, but “he” — Orlando, a boy of 16 — with whom we are making our acquaintance in Elizabethan England.
Director Willa Fitzgerald ’13 calls this rendition of “Orlando,” a Sarah Ruhl play based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, an “adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation.” An additional adaptation must come from the audience, which is shoved breathlessly along a conveyor belt of gender-bending from which there is no opportunity to disembark. Before we can adjust to Antosh, perhaps more of a creature than adolescent male (if there is a difference), we are overwhelmed by the jarring appearance of Eric Sirakian ’15, playing Queen Elizabeth.
In a futuristic headdress and long white skirt, Sirakian is in every simper a woman, yet in every hair upon his arm a man. Charmed by Orlando’s “shapely legs” and desire to become a poet, the queen invites Orlando to court, but is betrayed when she chances upon him smooching a young lady in secret. At that moment, Sirakian falls like an aged tree cleaved through its core, crying, “Man’s treachery!” His femininity was purposely awkward and garish, a rendering that winked roguishly at its own absurdity. But in his grating howl was the genuine ache of a woman, destroyed by the careless sexuality of a man she loves but cannot ever have.
The teenage, male Orlando of the opening is but one frantic gesture in a wild cavort of identity. In the first act, we see Orlando trapped in the romantic gale that is the androgynous Russian princess Sasha, played with exotic flair by Lucy Fleming ’16. Here, Antosh allows her feline gamboling to give way to a refined allemande, belying Orlando’s newfound civility in love only through her eyes’ fiendish glint. Despite Orlando’s affections, Sasha, pale and perfidious, abandons Orlando as he waits for her arrival at Blackfriars at midnight. Realizing Sasha’s deceit, Antosh breaks into coughs that hack her breathing to smithereens as a nutcracker would a frail walnut. In the sudden darkness, so like a womb, Antosh seemed an embryo waiting to be born from her character’s despair.
Later, Orlando, fleeing to Constantinople to avoid the unwelcome advances of a lustful archduchess (Jacob Osborne ’16, a vision in a hot pink boa), awakens after a weeklong slumber to find that he has become a woman. As before, Orlando and the supporting ensemble of Charlie Kelly ’14, Sirakian, Fleming and Osborne narrate, willing the metamorphosis into action as the words leave their lips. Orlando often struggles to communicate, but when he fails to express himself, this remarkable quartet, playing over 10 roles combined, are effortless raconteurs. They are no mere foils for Antosh. Instead, they elevate her, as both reflections and propulsions of her vigor. The play follows the unaging Orlando across five centuries; in one, the four became motorcars, “driving” alongside a steely Antosh in a whirlwind of dizzying, contrapuntal motion. In another, Sirakian is a wrenching Othello in a play-within-a-play, and in yet another a trembling old maid. These four are masterful, Scheherazades in both speech and body.
Antosh is never so much either sex as sex’s embodiment, a vigorous force that happens to take up residence in a human. When she plays Orlando the man, her energy runs unbridled, occasionally spilling from her frame like water from a jostled glass. When Orlando is a woman, however, Antosh begins to contain herself. To the growing list of what she must learn, Orlando now adds the rules governing the other sex, whose trials and tribulations she realizes only when she joins its roster.
“Yes, please!” she says in one scene, with the assertion of her residual manliness. This phrase she then repeats coquettishly, as a woman should: “Yes, please.” Two words, two genders in which to speak them.
Antosh looked down at her chest, disbelieving the physicality of her new identity. Eventually, it is not through serving tea and fluttering a fan that Orlando grows into herself, but sex — “I’m a woman, a real woman, at last!” Antosh exclaimed, crowing a discovery facilitated by the sailor Marmaduke (played by Kelly).
That Orlando knows her body, however, does not mean she knows herself. “Orlando” is a phantasmagoria of quicksilver identities, some lingering no longer than a few lines from the ensemble. While Sirakian, Fleming, Kelly and Osborne change with the plot’s rollicking tide, Antosh changes just once, stranded on the yet-unknown shores of womanhood. Assisted by silhouettes and projections, Orlando attempts to map the landscape of her new gender through her poetry.
Though fantastical, her struggle is also our own. We, too, are marooned in our bodies, and not by choice. In “Orlando,” the fiery Antosh is firing up smoke signals on our behalf. Ultimately, however, it is we ourselves that will answer them.
“Orlando” runs 8 p.m. on Thursday, 8 p.m. on Friday, and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday. Viewer discretion is advised.