Poetry 500 years in the making in Soulpepper’s exquisite, haunting, wondrous Orlando

Set & lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Photo by Aleksander Antonijevic.

 

Soulpepper Theatre brings Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to the stage with an exquisite Canadian premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s stage adaptation of the magical time-travelling, gender-fluid tale, directed by Katrina Darychuck.

Starting off in Elizabethan England, we find Orlando (Sarah Afful) as a young man; a darling of the court and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (John Jarvis), he loves to be in love and longs to be a poet. Finding solace and solitude under his favourite oak tree, he begins crafting a poem. Smitten by beautiful and mysterious visiting Russian princess Sasha (Maev Beaty), he is rapturously happy for a time, but his tendency towards melancholy grows when she abandons him to return to her home. When he finds himself unable to avoid the unwanted advances of the Archduchess Harriet (Alex McCooeye), he seeks a way to leave the country—and gets his wish when King Charles II sends him to Constantinople as an ambassador.

It is there that Orlando undergoes an amazing transformation, emerging from a long sleep as a woman; she also finds herself longing to return home. Upon arriving at her family estate in England, she is greeted with the surprising news that she was assumed dead; and, as a woman, is not permitted to own property. The Archduchess comes back into her life—though she has transformed into a man. Shifting into the 19th century, Orlando meets and falls in love with Marmaduke (Craig Lauzon), a gender-shifting person like herself. Returning throughout to finish the poem she started as a young man, Orlando eventually finds herself in the 20th century, with Sasha still on her mind and in her heart—and returning to her poem. And, after 500 years, she may very well be seeing its completion.

Like Orlando’s view of the world, the tone too shifts from playful and fun to furtive and melancholy as the story plays out on Lorenzo Savoini’s icy clean, bright, minimalist set; Gillian Gallow’s stunning period costumes and Thomas Ryder Payne’s haunting soundtrack complete the storytelling. Stellar work from the ensemble in this complex, multi-dimensional, multi-layered tale of love, beauty, poetry, transformation and time travel. Much of the storytelling is directed outward to the audience, with the narration being delivered by the three chorus members, as well as characters, as scenes play out.

Afful switches masterfully between Orlando’s playfully comic and darkly introspective moments, having us laughing one minute, and then breaking our hearts the next. Beaty is majestic and mysterious as the striking, spirited Sasha; a vivacious and wandering soul, the practical Sasha appears to be more anchored in the present than the romantic Orlando, whose mind lives more in the past and the future. Orlando wishes to possess her, and she will not be possessed. And the three actors (Jarvis, Lauzon and McCooeye) who comprise the chorus deftly, and delightfully, play a variety of male and female characters; further underlining the overlap and of “male” and “female” characteristics within each of us.

An embodiment of the spirit of the age, Orlando lives across time periods where “gender fluid” and “non-binary” weren’t even terms yet. And we recognize—as these characters so aptly illustrate—that, while gender-prescribed roles and gender presentation are socially-imposed constructs, we humans have been playing with the notion of gender for centuries.

Orlando continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre till July 29. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

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Profound longing & desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters

Left, clockwise from top: Dana Puddicombe, Arinea Hermans & Christina Fox; Right, from top: Nikolas Nikita & Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski—photo by Joseph Hammond

With several highly successful one-off productions under its belt, Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its inaugural 2017 season with its second production, Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, directed by Mallory Fisher—opening last night at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Wolf Manor gives the Chekhov classic a contemporary flavour with a gender-fluid take on the story of three sisters struggling with the ennui of living in a dull provincial garrison town as they long to return to their beloved Mosco.

The play opens on youngest sister Irina’s (Christina Fox) name day; it’s also a year to the day since their father died, leaving his four adult children the house. Eldest daughter Olga (Dana Puddicombe) is a teacher and middle daughter Masha (Arinea Hermans) is married to teacher Kulygin (Kaleb Horn); all three women are tired with boredom and long to return to Mosco. Only Irina and their brother Andrey (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski), who often keeps to his room reading or playing violin, are cheerful. She’s young, and still full of hope and possibility; and he’s in love with Natasha (Nikolas Nikita).

Brief respites from the gloom of ennui emerge, courtesy of a family friend, the entertaining Doctor Chebutykin (Scott McCulloch), and visits from local officers Tuzenbach (Jordin Hall) and Solyony (Nikita). And the arrival of the new commander Vershinin (Meghan Greeley) makes things even more interesting—especially for Masha, who has over the years become repulsed by her bookish and pedantic, but kind, husband and finds herself drawn to the chatty, philosophical newcomer.

Disappointment and disillusionment snowball over the few years that pass. Andrey realizes that marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and escapes into gambling, which puts the whole household into great debt. The Doctor, two years sober, falls off the wagon in a very bad way. Natasha lords it over her sisters-in-law, taking over the house and revealing a vicious side under that elegant demeanour, and creating a growing sense of claustrophobia among those who live there. Olga becomes something she vowed she’d never be: Headmistress. And even Irina’s balloon is popped, as she takes on work that is meaningless and mind-numbingly dull. Things go from bad to worse when a fire destroys a large section of the town, and the news that the battalion is being sent off on a new assignment—a heartbreaking prospect for Vershinin and Masha.

The immersive design places the audience both in and around the action, with a main playing area in the centre, and nooks and spaces around the outer edges (Beth Elliot, technical director/lighting design). Only two characters address us directly, baring their souls: Andrey and Chebutykin. By the end of the play, it’s as if we’re the birch trees surrounding the family home; silent witnesses to the goings-on there.

Beautiful work from the cast on these characters who all long for connection, belonging and understanding; each is grasping for meaning and hope, if not for now then for the future. Fox does a really nice job with Irina’s dissolve into disillusionment; having put her love life on hold with the idea of finding true love in Mosco, Irina settles for Tuzenbach, who is a good man, but not her desire. Hermans is heartbreaking as Masha, whose default is melancholy and whose heart awakens with the arrival of Vershinin; and the news that Vershinin must leave destroys her. Puddicombe brings a great sense of inner conflict to Olga; an ‘old maid’ school teacher and protective big sister to her siblings, Olga has abandoned her own desires to familial duty—a brave soldier who carries on no matter what. Shepherd-Gawinski brings a sharp edge to Andrey, the picture of the adorable, beloved brother who turns to gambling in his distress; outnumbered and put-upon by his sisters and his wife, he is as good-humoured as he can be. Stuck in the middle as he is, he too has put aside dreams in order to fit into his new life as husband and father—and the strain shows.

Greeley gives a moving performance as Vershinin, a military officer with the heart of a lover and philosopher. With an emotionally fragile husband and two daughters at home, Vershinin too finds an escape from the struggles of her life when she meets Masha. And their goodbye is heart wrenchingly sad, but inevitable as Vershinin must do her duty. Nikita does a marvelous job juggling Solyony and Natasha, as well as being the production’s costume designer. While both are classist, vain and irritating, these characters also have their secret hearts; Solyony is in love with Irina and Natasha is anxious to be accepted into Andrey’s family.

McCulloch’s performance as Chebutykin reveals the deep darkness in the Doctor’s heart; a jovial, sharp-witted man of 60-something, Chebutykin’s tendencies towards fatalism, and even nihilism, send him back to the bottle. Horn gives us an adorkably funny and mildly irritating Kulygin, who’s a silly nerd, but with a truly kind and forgiving heart under the dapper suit and glasses. And Hall gives us a lovely idealistic and philosophical Tuzenbach; like the others, he too wonders what the future will bring, but he’s also got his feet planted firmly in the present and wants to make the best of it.

Profound longing and desperate hope in the beautifully melancholy, immersively designed Three Sisters.

Three Sisters continues at Kensington Hall till March 26; full schedule and advance tix available online; advance booking strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

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