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‘Orlando’ crosses centuries, continents, genders

Sarah RuhlZack DeZon

Playwright Sarah Ruhl says she was drawn to Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando” because of the joy and exuberance that is central to the storytelling.

“Virginia Woolf wrote this as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West,” say Ruhl on the phone from California, “and it’s operatic and epic and often very funny.”

Her adaptation, “Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,” follows a young man in 16th century Elizabethan England who becomes a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, falls in love with a Russian princess, has his heart broken, and heads to Constantinople, where he falls asleep and wakes up a woman. Orlando navigates life from this new perspective across the next three centuries.


Lyric Stage Company takes on Ruhl’s gender-bending, time-traveling adaptation Feb. 23-March 25, and director A. Nora Long says the production captures the sweep of the story without requiring elaborate settings. In a story that covers several hundred years and several continents, Long says Ruhl’s rendition offers flexibility in design and scope, suggesting that a handful of actors — at the Lyric there will be five — play the chorus, while one actor (Caroline Lawton) plays Orlando.

“In some ways, ‘Orlando’ is structured like a fairy tale,” Long says, “in which the hero is confronted with challenges and through these fantastical adventures. I’m drawn to works like this that are more theatrical, and less naturalistic.”

The connections across time and space will be drawn through costumes, objects, and music, Long says.

“One of the delightful aspects of the play is the handmade magic it inspires that helps to illustrate Orlando’s progression from restriction to release, but also pulls the audience in closer to the story and the characters,” she says.

Ruhl (“The Clean House,” “In the Next Room,” “Stage Kiss”) says that even though “Orlando” is less meditative and more plot-driven than Woolf’s other novels, the linear structure only provides a frame. “The pleasure is in the telling of the tale,” Ruhl says, “and in those moments of discovery for Orlando.”


Long directed a production of the play last year at Suffolk University and was struck not only by the way the play spoke to current questions about gender roles and expectations, but also by the perspective of the students.

“We had time to experiment with the play, and I’m bringing a lot of what we learned to the Lyric,” she says.

One of the Suffolk University actors, Rory Lambert-Wright, is performing with the professional cast, and two members of the Suffolk production team are also working with Long at Lyric Stage.

“I think the time is right for ‘Orlando,’” says Ruhl. “Virginia Woolf couldn’t have imagined the trans movement, but she relished the idea that the mind of the artist is androgynous and wanted to open people up to possibilities.”

The haves and have-nots of ‘Old Money’

Wendy Wasserstein’s “Old Money” is set in an Upper East Side mansion, where an A-list crowd mingles in a garden and a few guests sneak away from the fray for a brief respite in a sort of sunroom.

“It’s a place where people can take a breath, compare notes, or have a fight,” says Karen MacDonald, who is directing a production of “Old Money” for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at Babson College in Wellesley March 6-18. (Tickets: www.commshakes.org)

“What makes the play so fascinating is that the house becomes another character,” MacDonald says. “The action shifts back and forth in time, with the house bearing witness to the historic parallels between the people with wealth in America, whether it was the robber barons at the beginning of the 20th century or the hedge fund managers at the turn of the 21st century.”


“Old Money” revolves around two parties that take place 100 years apart — when the mansion was first built, and after its recent restoration by its newest owner.

“It’s a comedy of manners, inspired by Edith Wharton,” says MacDonald, “in which the divisions between the haves and have-nots have dramatic weight.”

Each of the actors in the ensemble plays two roles — one from the Gilded Age and one from the 1990s, and both roles are reflections on the other.

“A lot of what we talk about in rehearsal focuses on finding the connections between these characters and understanding who the person is in the past and what their relationship is to the person in the present,” she says. “Wendy Wasserstein is looking not only at who acquires wealth, but how they acquire it and what they do with it: Do they spend it on themselves and appearances, or do they become philanthropists and share it?”

MacDonald, an award-winning actress herself, has assembled a cast that includes Will Lyman, Jeremiah Kissel, Amanda Collins, Eliott Purcell, and Ed Hoopman. “One of the wonderful things about the Boston community is having actors who know each other so well, the depth of experience and creating the opportunity for these actors to share,” she says.


Check out — or check in

Don’t miss these:

Sleeping Weazel theater company presents another of its boundary-pushing productions with “A Winter Gathering of New Music & Multimedia Performance” at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Black Box Theatre through Saturday. The evening consists of four pieces that integrate music, dance, theater, and video to celebrate ideas about home, memory, and the human cost of involuntary migration, and includes compositions and performances by more than a dozen artists. The evening’s selections were curated by Sleeping Weazel managing director Adara
Meyers, who is also presenting her own work. (Tickets: www.bostontheatrescene.com)

Brown Box Theatre Project presents John Kuntz’s “Hotel Nepenthe,” a weird and wildly funny collection of stories about the sometime denizens of a quirky hotel, March 2-4 and March 9-11 at the Atlantic Wharf, 290 Congress St. The four-actor company (which takes on 18 characters) includes breakout Boston actor Michael Underhill, and Kuntz will be on hand March 3 for a talkback about the wonderful world he created. Free. (Details: www.brown


Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Feb. 23-March 25. Tickets $35-$73, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.