Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Sarah Ruhl & Caraline Jeffrey?

“Orlando had become a woman. There is no denying it.”

So wrote Virginia Woolf in her 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography, a story of a duke turned duchess overnight.

Brought to the stage by playwright Sarah Ruhl 75 years later, the play Orlando was adapted to retell the same gendered narrative only with a modern spin.

Produced by the Lehigh University Department of Theatre and directed by Department of Theater Apprentice, Caraline Jeffrey, the story of Orlando returns again, reigniting the conversation around gender and identity, now for the Bethlehem community.

A Show Unlike the Others

On a misty Wednesday evening in early March, I filed into Zoellner Arts Center’s Diamond Theater in good company among friends, faculty, and even Tony from The Goose. I settled into a seat stage-left and waited with tense expectation.

After all, much of what I knew about the production was just about Woolf and Ruhl themselves—two titans of their game. My expectations were high, but things were already off to a hot start as I flipped through the play’s pamphlet— twenty pages, suffuse with historical background, cast biographies, and information on some of the production’s partnerships, one with the Mustard and Cheese Drama Society and another with the Lehigh University Pride Center.

As the lights dimmed, the cast assembled on a sparsely-set stage for some routine announcements. This time, with a rather unusual twist.

The parts of Queen Elizabeth I and Ensemble would be played by Ms. Jeffrey, the director, and a script would be waiting for her slightly off-stage should she ever need to consult it. She never needed to.

This was actually something we got to address after the show when Caraline told me she’s “not a performer and doesn’t claim to be one,” but that “the past 24 hours were as incredible as they were stressful.”

All the ensemble members seemed as well-versed as she, nailing their lines with confidence and a unique sense of animation that came off both as a serious cast of student-actors and a group of friends having some fun with each other.

The cast and set. Photo Credit: Chris Collado

Rehearsals officially began last Fall, making this production a multi-semester effort from start to finish. This preparation showed in spades from their chemistry together, and their consistently tight delivery.

Reilly Galvin, who played the titular character, handled the part with ease, capturing the youthful spirit of a bright-eyed boy, and the expressive, sensitive countenance of a transformed woman.

The arch of the play follows Orlando’s life over the course of five centuries, taking us on adventures through the extravagant Elizabethan court, exotic nights in Constantinople, life in the company of a Gypsy clan, and the sea-faring escapades of a sailor.

This makes for unquestionably entertaining theater, but Woolf might have had reasons beyond this point for its inclusion. Perhaps it’s a gesture to the universal and continuous nature of Orlando’s seemingly unique experience.

We might take solace in this kind of message. If Orlando is really immortal, audiences might be able to contextualize their own deeply personal conflicts as a product of years past and a predictor of years to come.

In this way, Orlando’s struggle is our struggle.

Pulling Back the Curtain

The script itself, the creative fruits of both Woolf and Ruhl, unfortunately, doesn’t always maintain this innovative and modern reading that I fully expected. Jeffrey’s production, though, molded by the modern eye, helps us to further understand the flaws of the original.

Jeffrey cast Reilly, who identifies as gender non-conforming, to play the gender-fluid Orlando. From an artistic standpoint, this is positive, but it does raise a tension between the play’s queer narrative and this actor’s queer reality.

By removing themself from the gender binary system, Reilly seems to exist on a more progressive plane than Orlando, their character, does.

When Orlando says, “I would like, at the present moment, to feel as though I am only one thing,” the character lags behind the actor’s own liberated choice of expression. This type of impulse from Orlando further perpetuates a norm by which Reilly has freed themself from.

Now, despite a five-century jump in time, the entirety of Woolf’s plot operates in an antiquated world: a world where gender roles are defined and divided. So, it shouldn’t necessarily surprise us that a 20th-century story comes to rely so heavily on the binary gender system. It is, however, a breath of fresh air to see a part of the production implicitly reject the foundation on which the outdated narrative stands.

The plot is actually fully driven by the binary psyche. Orlando can no longer “knock a man over his head” when she becomes a woman. Her amorous inclinations for Sasha, the subject of her deepest love as a boy, fade as she “submits to the spirit of the age” to “take a husband.”

While all of these moments drive the play’s plot forward, they might also do unintended work in reverting the audience’s internal compass back to a strictly binary setting.

What’s worse, Orlando’s gender identification seems to be the product of magic, not a conscious choice. Once she becomes Lady Orlando in Constantinople, it doesn’t take her long to accept the change and conceivably move on with life as a woman.

In these ways, the whole premise goes beyond a failed representation of the trans experience— it borders on insult, ultimately suggesting Orlando’s choice to become a woman wasn’t really a choice after all.

A headshot of Reilly, as Orlando. Credit: Chris Herrera


The 21st Century Orlando

Ms. Jeffrey acknowledges this plot-hole as a product of Woolf’s time: “She [Woolf] didn’t yet have the vocabulary to tell a trans narrative.” She knew that this narrative can extend beyond just an attempt at the trans narrative.

She told me the main point she wanted audiences to take with them was this notion of personal identity, bordering on a narrative about mental health awareness.

She said “We all have multiple selves: public and private; inner and outer; past, present, and future. For some of us, these selves are easy to reconcile with one another. For others, like Orlando, it is a struggle to mesh these identities into one body, onto one canvas. But is anyone ever really just one thing, or just one person? And is that really what we should be striving towards, anyway?”

In the same way, Orlando is only just “about to understand” herself by the play’s end, it seems so, too, was Woolf only about to understand how such a narrative could develop a little under a century later. The play was then only adapted by Sarah Ruhl in the twentieth century.

So, it seems that Jeffrey, along with the Lehigh Theatre Department and its many partners, took the show in its own direction, stressing a universal lesson that bridges gaps between us, rather than further alienating us.

Perhaps though we’re only just about to understand where the narrative takes us from here.

Feature Photo Credit: Chris Collado.

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