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Francesca Faridany is well cast as the title character of Sarah Ruhl's highly faithful adaptation of Virginia Woolf's fanciful novel about a man who transforms into a woman.

Francesca Faridany and David Greenspan in Orlando
(© Joan Marcus)
A man transforms into a woman and lives for over 400 years in Virginia Woolf's fanciful novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her great friend and possible lover Vita Sackville-West, who had a habit for cross-dressing and possessed at least as many facets as the character within the book. Sarah Ruhl's adaptation of Orlando, now getting its New York premiere at Classic Stage Company, is highly faithful to its source material, which proves both a strength and a pitfall.

It begins in the Elizabethan era, as a 16-year-old Orlando (Francesca Faridany) is practicing his swordplay, and goes on to depict the character's first meeting with Queen Elizabeth (David Greenspan), his love affair with Russian princess Sasha (Annika Boras), his diplomatic mission to Constantinople where his remarkable gender transformation occurs, Orlando's return to England as a woman, and much more.

The vast majority of the text is lifted directly from Woolf's novel, and Ruhl's primary achievement is in editing down the material into a narrative that can be played out in two hours time on the stage. There are moments when the playwright "cleans up" Woolf's language, for instance substituting the word "infidel" for the term Woolf employs that has far more racist connotations. But Ruhl retains several of the novel's idiosyncratic turns of phrases, as well as its wry observations on gender and sexuality.

On the downside, the playwright only rarely utilizes dialogue scenes, instead choosing to have a chorus of actors (Greenspan, Tom Nelis, and Howard Overshown -- with occasional contributions from Faridany and Boras, as well) narrate the tale directly to the audience. In moderation, this might have been effective, but done as much as it is here becomes somewhat tedious.

Faridany is well cast in the play's title role, convincing enough as a man, and retaining a boyish quality even after Orlando's transformation into a woman. But the true standout is Greenspan, in a delightfully gender-bending turn as Queen Elizabeth, and later as the Archduchess Harriet/Archduke Harry, whose amorous attentions towards Orlando -- in both male and female incarnations -- are hilariously played up. For those who have seen Greenspan's work in the past, it's not much of a departure, but it is completely fitting for the production and brings a welcome vivacity and humor to the proceedings.

Rebecca Taichman's direction attempts to counter the text's overreliance on direct narration by creating elegant and at times magical stage pictures. The action flows smoothly, and seemingly simple things such as the slow removal of a white drape covering the main platform of Allen Moyer's set is enough to suggest the melting of ice from a previously frozen Thames River.

Another ingenious idea is realized by costume designer Anita Yavich's outfit for Queen Elizabeth, which is a façade of a period gown that Greenspan slips on, rather than a fully three-dimensional dress. It nicely highlights the play's themes regarding the performance of gender roles, which are more mutable than might initially be thought.


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