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‘Orlando:’ style over substance but in a good way

This past weekend, Brandeis’ Department of Theater Arts premiered its newest production “Orlando,” based on the novel by Virginia Woolf and adapted for the stage by Sarah Ruhl. Brandeis’ production is carried by an amazing ensemble cast whose already compelling performances are enhanced through creative costumes and a minimalist set design. 

The story follows the character Orlando, an aristocratic poet who cannot seem to write his masterpiece, and seemingly stops aging around 30 years old. Orlando’s journey goes through the 18th to 20th centuries. The show deals a lot with the theme of gender identity. For act one Orlando identifies as a man and as a woman in act two.

The actors give their all in their performances and the show has a surprisingly large ensemble element. All the actors surrounding Orlando act as a type of Greek chorus, donning different costumes to play specific characters in Orlando’s story. While it is clearly Orlando’s story, it would not be the same without the energy brought by the ensemble cast. Of particular note, Ruth King ‘24 gives an over the top energetic performance whether she is playing a named character or is part of the ensemble. Other noticeable performances include Peirce Robinson ‘22, who gives a hilarious performance as the Archduchess, who is really the comically inept Archduke that relentlessly pursues Orlando’s affection. Every member of the ensemble showed amazing commitment and dedication in their performances, as did the show’s title character. Orlando is played by Ellie Forster ‘24, who gives an excellent performance, playing both masculine and feminine roles. Forster showcases great range in their acting ability as Orlando shifts from different emotional states throughout the course of the play. While the ensemble provides the levity and comedic elements of the show, Forster provides the emotional core of the show as Orlando deals with heartbreak and tries to find out who they are.

Supporting this talented cast are some amazing costumes. The costumes designed by Kat Lawrence ‘22 are amazing, both for the ensemble and named characters. The Queen, played by Lucie Blau ‘24, has an amazing and complex dress that is reminiscent of Elizabethan attire. Her dress is so grandiose that it actually serves as a set piece in addition to a costume highlighting both the character’s vanity and extravagant personality. Each ensemble member also has an excellent outfit colored in black and white, possibly in relation to the show’s theme of gender identity with black and white representing femininity and masculinity. But in keeping with the show’s themes of fluid gender identity, all the ensemble costumes are a mix of black and white and a mix of traditionally feminine and masculine clothing, rather than one or the other. 

The show’s set is fairly minimalistic, which allows the actors to go all out on stage without drawing attention away from them. There are no massive or gaudy setpieces that draw focus away from the actors. Instead, the set is made up of hanging metal frames which are used for multiple settings. My compliments to scenic designer Baron E. Pugh and lighting designer Jeff Adelberg for their excellent use of the stage space to highlight the actors. The use of lighting and shadow, in particular, was phenomenal. During some dramatic scenes, the actors’ silhouettes stretched across the backdrop of the stage in a very eerie but compelling effect, enhancing the actors’ performances. For example, the entry into the 20th century was accompanied by flashing lights and the sounds of old timey cars. I really appreciate the use of light and sound to denote the passage of time, rather than a set piece that would distract from the very character driven narrative.  

While the show is very funny and the cast is great, it is sometimes almost too funny. I noticed that the constant bombardment of joke after joke and quip after quip left me feeling less and less amused. Even the more serious scenes, in which Orlando reflects upon life and themselves, are usually undercut by a one-off joke or snarky comment from the ensemble. For the most part the jokes land and are genuinely funny, but every now and then there would be a joke either someone didn’t get or got little more than a cough from the audience. Thankfully, those moments were few and far between.

Despite all the glitz and glamor, “Orlando” has one major flaw that plagues many stylized performances, and that is style over substance. The show’s narrative is simple yet vague. While the theme of gender identity is clear, the overall message of the play gets muddled in all flashy clothes and flashing lights. Normally, I enjoy a vague ending or a production that makes you think about its message rather than simply tell you outright, but in this case, the show’s morality comes off as confusing rather than thought provoking. But perhaps that is the point, as for much of the show and even at the end, Orlando is still searching for who they are. 

Regardless of these minor issues, Brandeis’ production of “Orlando” was still entertaining and tackled the complex issue of gender identity. While the show doesn’t really find a conclusion to that issue, it does not detract from the artistry within the performance. The ensemble brings hilariously high-energy physicality to the show. Combined with creative costumes and a minimalist set design the ensemble is able to shine on stage, “Orlando” is an example of a show that takes the hard work of many different people both cast and crew to create something truly awesome.

Editor’s Note: Deputy Arts Editor Cyrenity Augustin did not contribute to the writing or editing of this article.

 

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