Review: "Orlando" at Soulpepper Theatre

Joe Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Theatre Critic

To see actors who have received proper professional training in the use of two core instruments – their bodies and their voices – and to tell a story that keeps its audience riveted for just over two hours was marvellous in every extent. Soulpepper’s opening night production of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (adapted by Sarah Ruhl) was magically executed by five creatively talented actors who never once faltered in telling this story of gender identity with the utmost empathy.

One of the production highlights that worked so well for me was the simplicity of Orlando’s staging. Upon entering the auditorium, I was immediately struck by a theatre in the round setting, so very different from the traditional proscenium arched stage that I am accustomed to seeing in this venue.

 Sarah Afful, left, and Maev Beaty in Soulpepper Theatre’s Orlando.  (ALEKSANDAR ANTONIJEVIC)

Sarah Afful, left, and Maev Beaty in Soulpepper Theatre’s Orlando.  (ALEKSANDAR ANTONIJEVIC)

The pre-show use of white lighting was very effective. A high back chair is meticulously placed centre stage on the floor. The raised floor was glassy white and almost appeared to be an ice skating rink. It metaphorically does become one moments later in the first act. A white door hangs in mid air and remains suspended. Various props/costume pieces are hidden underneath the rectangular stage.

Director Katrina Darychuk handled Orlando’s challenging notions of sex and gender with humble gentleness and compassion. Her fluidly-paced production is storytelling of an epic and grand nature as we journey over 400 years in time. She certainly challenged my understanding in what I believe about gender fluidity. I had forgotten that Virginia Woolf believed in what she called an androgynous mind, and these sometimes-controversial issues of gender identity were probably even more daring and provocative in 1928. For me (and hopefully for all of us), that is at least a positive sign that good theatre makes us constantly re-consider and re-evaluate our understanding of social issues.

The play’s text, like the novel Orlando, is playful and lighthearted at so many times that the audience relishes and appreciates those moments of laughter. Pay close attention to the French translation where the fourth wall is humourously broken for the audience, and we also get to share in the comedy of the moment.

Sarah Afful offers a tellingly nuanced performance of depth and intrigue as the androgynous central character. Her Orlando is smart, provocative, sexy, demanding, sometimes petulant, sometimes obstinate. I found myself rooting all the time for Orlando and it didn’t matter to me what sex she was as all men and women, all genders, are persons of intimate feelings, desires, emotions and questions.

Ms. Afful surrounds herself with four actors who also deliver equally top-notch caliber performances. Maev Beaty as Sasha is sleek and seductive as Orlando’s lover who simultaneously tempts and deceives with wicked glee. As Queen Elizabeth I, John Jarvis presents a love-starved, jealous older British monarch who seduces the young Orlando to bed with mischievous intentions. Alex McCooeye playfully presents another lover of Orlando’s, Archduchess Harriet, as mentally unstable and unbalanced. Craig Lauzon is dashing as Orlando’s spouse, Marmaduke. I have only seen Mr. Lauzon’s work on The Royal Canadian Air Farce and am highly impressed with his work here at Soulpepper. I sincerely hope he returns.

Another highlight of the production for me was the superb, laser-focused intensity of Chorus work delivered by Messrs. Jarvis, McCooeye and Lauzon. Ms. Darychuk obviously worked closely with these three men where they clearly positioned themselves for sightline purposes while narrating events of the plot in a surreptitious dance of movement. These carefully choreographed bits neither upstaged each other nor any focus on Ms. Afful.  True performing artists at work here.

FINAL COMMENTS: To see five actors who clearly exude a confident joy in their performance is one that this theatre goer and lover will always remember. Soulpepper’s Orlando will haunt me for some time for its emotionally, breathtaking and beautiful journey through time in seeing that we stop letting body parts define our experiences of life.

Performances of Orlando continue to Sunday July 29 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in Toronto’s Historic Distillery District. For tickets call (416) 866-8666. You may also purchase tickets on line or receive further information at www.soulpepper.ca.

Photo: Alex McCooeye, Sarah Afful, Craig Lauzon, Maev Beaty, and John Jarvis. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

Running Time : 2 hours and 10 minutes with one 20 minute intermission.