It takes Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s benign Dorian Gray, the better part of half a millennium to finish a poem — but less than two hours to convince us that immortality and androgyny are a lot less fun than they look in vampire movies. That, I’m afraid, is the takeaway from Sarah Ruhl’s dainty, evanescent adaptation at Classic Stage Company of Orlando, Woolf’s gender-bending, epoch-hopping, mock-biography best known to mass audiences via its 1992 film incarnation (with the dashing Tilda Swinton as the title androgyne). Although based on a book written in and about sheer ecstasy, a literary swan dive into the transgressive, trans-temporal, trans-everything swirlings of art, love, lust, and mortality, the stage version sedulously filters out all arousal. There’s no wanton gap between this Orlando’s front teeth; its skin is cool as marble, free of any carnal tingle. Sex is had, or rather danced, but in the most sexlessly academic minuet imaginable: Annie-B Parson’s ordinarily pugnacious choreography here congeals into something strangely restrained and overceremonious. The show, in spirit, might’ve been subtitled “The 500-Year-Old Virgin.”
A lack of stomach, not smarts, is the chief issue. Ruhl is her usual unfailingly elegant, unbeatably witty self, cleverly (but not obnoxiously) braiding her own brand-name wit with Woolf’s. When Orlando (Francesca Faridany) asks the ghost of Queen Elizabeth (David Greenspan) what death is like, she replies, “Oh that. Nothing really, just a prick in the sides. My sinuses are unbelievably clear. All is air.” She’s also chosen what seems, on paper, like a ripe source text. Orlando: A Biography purports to chronicle the life of an Elizabethan nobleman who’s magically transformed, by love and art, into a woman, and an immortal woman at that — eternal muse and eternal artist, fused in one lovely body. Ruhl, something of a minimalist, labors manfully to make all of this time-traveling transvestism aerodynamic enough for an evening’s entertainment (sorry, fans: most of Orlando’s adventures in the eighteenth century hit the cutting-room floor) while essentially preserving Woolf’s most vital ideas: women and art as Interpreted Things struggling to break free of their Interpreters, and the ravishing, transformational power of the aesthetizing gaze. But what Ruhl and her director, Rebecca Taichman, can’t seem to muster is fire in the belly, or in the loins, or anywhere below the neck. That’s a shame, considering Orlando was perhaps the closest thing to a barbaric yawp Woolf ever wrote, a Valentine to her lesbian lover Vita Sackville-West. This version, on the other hand, feels like a well-behaved schoolgirl’s perfectly enunciated Latin declamation.
More troubling, a certain cheap irony seems to have leaked in. The play, like Woolf’s novel, is ever conscious of itself as an artwork, but onstage, the nonstop winks don’t really deepen the literary magic: They come off coy, the playwrighting equivalent of a strenuously arched eyebrow. Ruhl has written mostly in direct address; as a result, Orlando’s only truly meaningful relationship (though she shuffles through a number of lovers over the centuries) is with us, the audience. But Faridany, for all of her sprightliness and fresh-faced verve, doesn’t share much with us beyond game amusement and nonplussed despair. The text and the direction don’t seem to be giving her many moments to breathe. Around her, a chorus of three eunuchlike gentlemen (Greenspan, Howard Overshown, and Tom Nelis) play nearly every role, switching genders with brio and good humor, but none of them strikes up much of a rapport with Faridany. Greenspan is the standout, deploying his trademark needling delivery, and he wins his laughs fair and square — but often, one senses, at the expense of the dramaturgy. He’s coloring a little outside the show’s lines, sincerity-wise, and no one’s seen fit to nudge him back in.
After a lovely early sequence in the Elizabethan era, when Orlando meets his first and greatest love, Princess Sasha (Annika Boras having sumptuous fun with a voluptuous borscht-flavored accent), the play starts to evaporate, and soon, we’re nodding off to the squeak of Ruhl’s dutiful yellow highlighter coolly parsing the pages. Meanwhile, Woolf’s immortal beloved feels more and more remote, less and less interesting, receding instead of approaching the farther we go with her on her remarkable journey through history. But then, Ruhl’s Orlando isn’t Woolf’s. This Orlando is constantly amazed, yet registers little of the thrill, the wonder, the joy and dread of her extraordinarily long life, on either a literal or metaphorical level. She always feels about 17, winningly naïve, knowing nothing, ready for anything. That’s lovely for a few minutes, but, as my mother likes to say, there’s nothing more boring than aging ingénue — especially when she’s had 500-odd years to get wise.