FORT WORTH There is a lot of living, a lot of loving and a lot of cool theatrics in Stage West’s thoroughly charming regional premiere of Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of that title by contemporary American playwright Sarah Ruhl, which opened Saturday.
The momentous life of the title character, played with true verve by Anastasia Munoz, covers a span of about 400 years, beginning in the Elizabethan era and concluding (maybe) in the Jazz Age. When we meet her, she is a him. But at age 30, after fending off the advances of the smitten queen of England and falling for a Russian noblewoman, Orlando magically transforms into a woman living in the 18th century.
The next thing you know, she is transported to the Victorian era. Then, after a few romantic complications in that period, we find her in the 20th century, where she is amazed by the carriages that move without horses.
If that sounds a little strange, it is. But this script sells its magic well and without the slightest hint of irony. We have no trouble believing that Orlando is living all these amazing lives as we fly across centuries as easily as turning a page in a book. Credit for that goes to Ruhl’s text and to the light and breezy direction by an interesting pair: veteran Stage West artistic and co-producing director Jim Covault and Garret Storms, a fine young actor who has done a great deal of memorable work at Stage West, but who is relatively new to directing.
The directors’ guidance probably matters even more than usual in this piece, because it is such a pure piece of theater. It builds its own world and its own realities to a much greater extent than most plays, and that puts a lot of pressure on the directors to be creative in their staging. Covault and Storms obviously relished that challenge, because they met it gloriously. Among their nicer touches are some highly effective uses of recorded music to enhance certain moments.
Munoz, who is making her debut at Stage West, brilliantly captures the excitement, wonder and (occasional) pain felt by her character as his-her adventures and romances zoom by. She especially does a nice job with the physical demands of the role, conveying young, male and coltish Orlando as vividly as the female, elegant and in-charge version that emerges from the boy.
Katherine Bourne, as Orlando’s love interest Sasha, captures the hot and cold extremes of her character well. And, while all of the costumes by Michael Robinson work quite well, Bourne’s is especially stunning.
Helping us keep track of where Orlando is going at any given moment is a chorus of three actors, Mark Shum, Stephen Rosenberger and Nick Moore, who provide badly needed commentary and play multiple characters. Shum’s Queen Elizabeth is particularly fun, but all three gentlemen answer the bell eagerly when they are asked to flesh out Orlando’s life for us.
The only disappointment in this production is Covault’s set design. It is intentionally half-done and cluttered with all manner of bric-a-brac and junk (the detritus of lives well-lived?).
The intention is probably to convey the messiness and never-quite-finished nature of existence, but there is no getting around the fact that the set is just flat-out ugly. It would seem that some plan that more directly and artfully responded to the times and places of the scenes would have been a better approach.
But you are going to be so riveted by Munoz that you are not likely to much notice the set. And, again thanks a great deal to the directors, this production allows you to engage it as deeply or as superficially as you like.
You can chew on what Woolf might have meant by the play’s time traveling and flexible approach to gender identification, or you can just go with the flow and ride happily along with whatever Orlando might be doing next in this production, which, despite the long life of its hero, clocks in at a tidy 100 minutes. Either way, you are apt to have a great time.