The intense relationship between dear friends and sometime lovers Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West was not a scandal in their own households — the writers’ similarly free-thinking husbands were reportedly fine with it.
But when Woolf set out to write a light novel as a sort of love letter to her companion, she necessarily had to write in code. So she ingeniously created a character based on Sackville-West who is born an enthusiastically heterosexual man and wakes one day to discover that his anatomy has mysteriously changed to that of a woman, though his — now her — amorous passions are unchanged.
The fantastical device of having her hero live for hundreds of years further drew the censors away from a too-literal reading of Woolf’s proto-feminist satire, which playfully but rigorously challenges the validity of accustomed gender roles and casts a friendly eye on same-sex attraction.
It may be anachronistic to call Woolf’s 1928 book, “Orlando: A Biography,” a conscious endorsement of trans rights as well. But playwright Sarah Ruhl’s 2010 stage adaptation, “Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,” now onstage at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, makes clear the author’s notion that gender expression is merely a performance — and not an innate set of behaviors that comes neatly packaged with its accompanying genitalia.
A. Nora Long directs this delightfully propulsive and clear-headed production, wittily steering an outstanding six-person cast through the sort of precise physical choreography that disguises itself as effortless. Ruhl’s script leaves much to the discretion of the director, including the number of actors, which she suggests should number between three and eight. Though one is featured as Orlando, the others function as an ever-changing chorus that narrates the action while enacting a series of roles set across the centuries.
The production design is dominated by white, which creates a neutral palette to facilitate a sense of timelessness as the action ranges from the highly specific — the killing of a fly, a puppet-show version of “Othello” — to loosely contained romps across time and space. Richard Wadsworth Chambers’s set proposes a slightly elevated platform adorned with a series of simple, iron arches and a chandelier wrapped in white cloth. Jessica Pribble costumes the actors largely in plain white, with the occasional colorful embellishment.
Caroline Lawton is indefatigably charming as Orlando, whether as a naive young man bewildered by the physical affections of Queen Elizabeth I (Hayley Spivey, terrific) or a newly minted maiden chafing at the behavioral restrictions that accompany a mid-show change of costume and gender. Each actor in the chorus — also including Michael Hisamoto, Rory Lambert-Wright, Jeff Marcus, and Elise Arsenault — is similarly excellent and indispensable to the rapid-fire storytelling and scene-shifting.
Orlando realizes that she’s expected to act differently after her transformation, though she feels like the same person inside. “Orlando was beginning to be aware that women should be shocked when men display emotion in their presence,” she says of herself, “and so, shocked she was.” When a gentleman courts her with carefully practiced ritual, a chorus member explains that they “acted the parts of man and woman for 10 minutes with great vigor.”
The hero has more comical romantic misadventures, but finally finds love when she meets a sea captain (Hisamoto, emerging as a comic favorite at the Lyric) who is similarly unbound by gender convention. It turns out it feels as natural for Orlando to wear a dress and love a man as it did to wear britches and love a woman.
Today we might describe her and her partner as gender nonconforming, though the supporting examples given in the text are deliberately trivial. Each person is amazed at the professed sex of the other. After all, he has “a passion for peppermints,” blushes easily, and loves new boots. She never takes more than 10 minutes to dress. How can it be?
The answer suggested by Woolf and Ruhl is that the true costume here, more so than petticoats or frocks, is gender itself.
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
At Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., through March 25. Tickets from $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.comJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.