Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Court Theater takes on ’Orlando’
For female actors of the current era, it is difficult to imagine too many actors whose footsteps are more daunting to follow than the crimson-haired queen of indie androgyny, Tilda Swinton. Most recently hailed for her takes in I Am Love, Julia and Michael Clayton, Swinton's soft-spoken poise is nearly impossible to match -- she is an individual next to impossible to replicate.
But for Amy J. Carle, the actor currently starring in Court Theatre's new production of Orlando, the fact that Swinton previously graced her role (in a somewhat under-the-radar 1992 film directed by Sally Potter) doesn't present all that much of a quandary, she recently told EDGE. In fact, Carle has never seen the film, purposely avoiding it after she auditioned for the role. (Orlando runs through April 10, 2011. For more information, visit the theater's website.)
"I felt like it would be slightly unfair to plant the seeds of someone else's performance in my head," Carle said. " I feel like whatever an actor brings to a role is so specific to them."
Rather, the bigger challenge, which she described as "intimidating," has come with living up to the storied past of the production's original inspiration: The 1929 novel written by British literary legend Virginia Woolf. The novel tells the story of Orlando, a forever young, omnigendered would-be writer and British ambassador who searches for love through four centuries.
Thinly veiled love letter
That the work is semi-autobiographical of Woolf’s own life -- it is thinly veiled as a love letter between Woolf and her lover Vita Sackville-West, who very directly inspired its title character -- adds more than a certain element of historical weight, which is slightly ironic given that it is also regarded as one of Woolf’s more accessible, slightly tongue-in-cheek novels. At the time of its publication, it was the author’s most commercially successful work -- even with its undertones of gender transgression, sexual exploration and female homosexuality, themes that led to the banning of another popular work, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a year earlier.
"It was a huge, daring move for Virginia to write this novel and I also felt like it was a nod to her talent that the novel was so widely praised and accepted," Carle said. "I don’t think people realized what it was all about, because it didn’t do much to hide it. But it’s a masterful novel and to have the opportunity to embody that character now is very exciting and an enormous privilege and honor."
The novel had been on Court’s radar for some time, but the timing was never right as the company felt the adaptations of the gender-bending, multi-century-spanning play they read did not do its original text justice, according to resident dramaturg Drew Dir. As it turned out, the adaptation they chose for this production belonged to Chicago-based playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose script was commissioned and first produced by Evanston’s Piven Theater Workshop in 1998.
No stranger to Sarah Ruhl
"When we as a staff sat down and read it out loud, it was just such a delightful experience that we all sort of immediately fell in love with it," Dir said.
From there, the next step was finding the show’s director. The first candidate who came to mind, Jessica Thebus, an associate artist with Steppenwolf Theatre accepted their offer and was involved with the production nearly from the start. Thebus is no novice to working with a Ruhl script, having already directed several of her shows, and embraced the script’s story theater style. With a chorus portraying much of the scenery themselves, the task of communicating diverse scenery ranging from Turkey to a vast royal residence was pared down.
"It’s the exact kind of challenge these actors and [Thebus] are fantastic at sinking their teeth into," Dir said. "It was the most fun for them, I think, to think about how they would stage the ship of the Russian embassy or this oak tree."
The chorus -- composed of four male actors all with backgrounds in clowning and physical comedy -- serve as an unexpected highlight, Dir added, as they are responsible for creating the play’s world -- all while embodying their own gender-bending, corset-wearing vibe inspired by the backstage dressing room of a drag show.
Keeping the scenery simple has also allowed for the focus to remain on the script’s dialogue, which Dir said is almost entirely comprised of Woolf’s original text. While Potter’s film version eliminated much of the third-person narrative voice, that presence has been left intact in Court’s production.
Ultimately, though, the play’s primary focus rightly boils down to the transformative journey the play’s titular character goes through -- at one point, in the middle of the piece, going to bed with a man’s body and waking up with all of a woman’s working parts, mixing aspects of male and female identities throughout. There’s a strong flavor of fantasy present, but Carle hoped the gender binary-busting mood -- about not only gender, but also love and intimacy -- resonates beyond the stage.
"I strongly feel that we are all human beings on this planet who share emotions and passions about the people in our lives, whether over a brief or long period of time, and love doesn’t really know any boundaries," Carle said. "I hope I breathe enough life into this character so that people can just enjoy it and go on that journey, to realize through watching the play that it’s just love. It’s just love."
Orlando continues through April 10, 2011 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL. For more information, visit the theater’s website.