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Jobsite Theater Unmasks Gender in Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”

If you were asked what makes a person a woman, or a man, you may be able to make a long list of things that detail the persona of the two sexes. Pink is for girls. Blue is for boys. Women wear dresses. Men wear pants. Perhaps you’d say that males are masculine, and females feminine. Rarely, even in 2015, is the inverse said about the sexes without a sneer, or at least without a tone of confusion. It’s sometimes difficult for people to imagine the sexes as being something much more vast than what society would label them. Colors don’t make a sex. Nor does clothing. So, how has it become so unthinkable for the sexes to share traits, desires, emotions, clothing, or even attractions to either sex?

Jobsite Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” seeks to find these answers. Woolf’s almost 90 year old book explores gender, sexuality, and romance as told through the 300 year old life of the title character, Orlando. Ruhl’s adaptation stays close to the source material, even keeping exact dialogue as originally written by Woolf herself, and tells the story by way of an ensemble cast of 5 to 10 actors, usually with at least 3 men. Jobsite has employed the use of an all female cast of 5 local powerhouse actors to weave together the unbelievable, yet poetic life of Orlando.

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Photo courtesy Brian Smallheer

Orlando’s (Katrina Stevenson) journey begins in Elizabethan England, where he joins Queen Elizabeth’s (Ami Sallee) court and eventually woos and beds her. Following closely after, he begins an intense love affair with the Russian princess, Sasha (Emily Belvo). All the while, every woman that meets him falls madly in love with him, and his sumptuous legs. It seems immediately obvious that there is more than meets the eye to the young Orlando, but the same can be said for his lovers. The Queen has taken on a traditionally masculine job, while still having to maintain her femininity, and Sasha, when first seen ice skating by Orlando and others is assumed to be a man, because how she moves, and how she portrays herself.

Orlando’s tale moves forward through time and into Constantinople, where he is taking refuge away from the unwanted advances of the obsessed Archduchess (Jonelle Meyer). It is here, that Orlando transforms from his old self and into his new form; that of a female. The now female Orlando decides to return home to England, and to begin life anew. Unfortunately, Orlando begins to find faults in reconciling his former masculine self with the expected feminine ideals that he must now embody. From embracing the emotional, to always being polite, to remaining chaste, Orlando has much to learn in order to fit in.

Upon reaching her home, Orlando finds that she is no longer able to own her property, for women are forbade by law. Yes, she has much to learn. Furthermore, Orlando is met again by her former harasser, the Archduchess, who now reveals herself to, in fact, be a male. After getting rid of the Archduke once and for all, Orlando finds solace in the arms of a new lover, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire (Nicole Jeannine Smith). The two start a quick and deeply enamored love affair, but before consummating their relationship have to ask one another if they are the sex they claim to be.

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Photo courtesy Brian Smallheer

The back and forth from one sex to another, and the mixing of gender identities so fluidly is crafted elegantly by Katrina Stevenson’s all white/cream/tan costuming. Every character played is done so in a way that they each harness the traditional strengths and weaknesses of both genders flawlessly, and always playfully asking the audience to question their predisposed standards of masculine/feminine dichotomies. The ensemble cast comes together as though they were The Lost Boys telling Peter Pan the story of a great hero, sitting inside an old, oak treehouse, jumping in and out of scenes through trapdoors and from behind trees, each time in a new costume, or as a new character.

There is no doubt that Jobsite brought together the absolute perfect cast for this production. Even though it is suggested by Sarah Ruhl to have at least 3 males play roles, I find it hard to imagine a production as such. This is no doubt in part due to the strong and unwavering characters spearheaded by Stevenson, Belvo, Sallee, Meyer, and Smith.  All 5 actors wielded such powerful and enjoyable performances, that one would be hard-pressed to find fault in any of their moments on stage. Jobsite Theater’s “Orlando” is comedic, yet sad, fun and witty, strong and defiant, yet provocative and sexy. It takes on the challenge of the philosophy behind gender constructions, and does so with a knowing smile. If you don’t leave questioning a few things about society…well, you’re not looking hard enough.

“Orlando” runs through March 29th at the Straz Center’s Shimberg Playhouse.
Tickets: $28. jobsitetheater.org or 813-229-STAR for more info.
Cover photo courtesy of Crawford Long. 

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