Orlando at Manbites Dog Bends Genders Like Gumby

Emily Anderson (left) and Skylar Gudasz star as Orlando and Sasha in Orlando by Sarah Ruhl
Emily Anderson (left) and Skylar Gudasz star as Orlando and Sasha in Orlando by Sarah Ruhl

One of the reasons classic literature and drama exists is because it works on a number of different levels; and each time you read/watch/visualize/experience that classic piece, you are able to see yet another aspect of it that you might have missed previously. Virginia Woolf is one of those masterful writers who not only writes a beautiful paragraph, but can also evoke emotions that both break and heal your heart while also revealing your own vulnerabilities … vulnerabilities that the writer/performer/artist/singer does, as well. The Delta Boys’ version of Woolf’s masterpiece, Orlando, adapted by Sarah Ruhl and showing through Jan. 28th at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, reveals yet another strata of possibilities in the story.

The play begins without fanfare, with no dialogue or action beyond the wanderings of the five characters on and off stage, moving small pieces of the setting and muttering to themselves or each other. The characters are fairly androgynous; and the costuming underlines that aspect with all five identically dressed in a gathered knee-length pant, a costume that morphs throughout the play as do the characters themselves.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography is the tale of a character’s travels through time and gender. Each of the major scenes in the novel (as in the adaptation by Sarah Ruhl) is set in a different era, and certain themes (such as the blending of genders and the struggle to identify) echo in each era, but one thing remains the same: Orlando continually returns to his/her nuclear identity, as a writer. It is that theme that came to the surface for us in this version of the classic.

The cast, who is onstage throughout the entire play, are energetic and well-meshed, weaving in and out of each other’s lives through the centuries, often becoming another gender (as does Orlando). Their ability to hook into each other’s lines, as well as their physical ability to choreograph the often abstract tableaux in the performance, is excellent; and together, they build an interesting and enjoyable perspective.

In a type of Greek chorus opening, the cast is lit from below as they stand against the outside wall, offering an introduction to Orlando, who wants to be a poet when he grows up. Emily Anderson, an actress whose persona is as much like Peter Pan as it is Orlando’s, plays her character in a manner that makes her the straightest character in the play. Straight, in this sense, meaning most logical. He/she is always puzzled by the changes in his gender, while the others in the play might also change and act as though they never knew any other way to be. She poses the questions that construct the backbone of the play: the theme of gender identity.

It is the supporting cast who bring in other themes; and the time periods themselves become characters, plus let’s not forget the role of government and royalty in the play. We would need 10 pages to discuss the multilayered plot and the many metaphors. Besides, the actors are the ones who capably deliver those possibilities to an attentive audience.

One aspect of the story that this cast of actors amply delivered was the comedic element throughout. Though each actor in this production is talented, Caitlin Wells, who plays the Archduchess, has a wacky, over-the-top sense of humor that is like a manic Lucille Ball with an English accent. One of the things that makes for a good comedian is the ability to deliver the funny lines clearly and distinctly. That might sound easy; but it takes timing, clarity of voice, and the ability to throw that voice when you’re moving about the stage. She not only manages that, but also has an elastic control over her face that reminds one of the characters in Cirque du Soleil shows. She can tell a whole story with her eyebrows.

Rajeev Rajendran, who plays the Queen, is a deadpan actor who manages to pull off the haughty royal queen who hides her walker behind an intricately carved steel shield. The adaptation pays homage to Virginia Woolf by opening up each part to any gender match, thus Rajendran is a man playing a woman, who becomes another gender in other eras. Each of his characters is imbued with a cavalier attitude, the foil to the other actors onstage.

The award for best accent in the performance goes to Skylar Gudasz for her interpretation of Sasha, the beautiful Russian girl who steals Orlando’s heart in the beginning of the story. They create a love that lasts centuries, yet they never quite get it right. Gudasz reminds one of the characters in Dr. Zhivago, skating up and down the frozen ice of her life.

Dale Wolf plays Marmaduke with a devil-may-care, sexy strut that instantly attracts Orlando. Falling in love at first sight evokes a deep understanding that Virginia Woolf constantly explored in her writing and in this novel/play especially. Dale Wolf’s distinguished look and confidence onstage creates a believable connection with the other characters revolving around each other in this well-acted identity farce.

Orlando is a tight, well-performed play with charismatic actors who work well together as an ensemble. It is definitely worth a night out with your favorite partner.

Emily Anderson (left) and Skylar Gudasz star as Orlando and Sasha in <em>Orlando</em> by Sarah Ruhl
Emily Anderson (left) and Skylar Gudasz star as Orlando and Sasha in Orlando by Sarah Ruhl

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 11th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/orlando/Event?oid=5098887.

The Delta Boys present ORLANDO at 8:15 p.m. Jan. 13 and 14, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 15, 8:15 p.m. Jan. 19-21, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22, and 8:15 p.m. Jan. 25-28 at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster Street, Durham, North Carolina 27701, presented as part of Manbites Dog’s Other Voices Series.

TICKETS: $12 Thursday ($6 students and $10 seniors 62+ and activity-duty military personnel) and $20 Friday-Sunday ($10 students and $18 seniors 62+ and active-duty military personnel), except $5 on Wednesday Bargain Night on Jan. 25th.

BOX OFFICE: 919-682-3343 or https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?ticketing=mbdt.

SHOW: http://thedeltaboys.squarespace.com/, https://www.facebook.com/events/144434956044033/ and http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2016-17-season/orlando/.

PRESENTER: https://thedeltaboys.squarespace.com/, https://www.facebook.com/thedeltaboys, and https://twitter.com/thedeltaboys.

VENUE: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/, https://www.facebook.com/manbitestheater, and https://twitter.com/ManbitesTheater.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/about/directions/.


Orlando: A Biography (1928 novel): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orlando:_A_Biography (Wikipedia).

The Novel (excerpt): https://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Virginia Woolf (English writer, 1882-1941): https://www.bl.uk/people/virginia-woolf (British Library bio), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Virginia-Woolf (Encyclopædia Britannica bio), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Woolf (Wikipedia).

Orlando (2003 Hollywood and 2010 Off-Broadway play, adapted from the original by Virginia Woolf): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/17252/chekhovs-three-sisters-and-woolfs-orlando-two-renderings-for-the-stage (Samuel French, Inc.), http://www.sarahruhlplaywright.com/plays/view/ORLANDO-adapted-from-the-original-by-Virginia-Woolf/ (Sarah Ruhl’s web page), http://lortel.org/Archives/Production/5109 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orlando:_A_Biography#Influence_and_recognition (Wikipedia).

The Play (excerpt): http://www.samuelfrench.com/Download/GetFile?downloadId=105390 (Samuel French, Inc.).

Study Guide: http://www.courttheatre.org/pdf/guides/ORLANDO_Study_Guide.pdf (Court Theatre in Chicago, IL).

Sarah Ruhl (Wilmette, IL-born playwright): http://www.sarahruhlplaywright.com/ (official website), http://lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/33624 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Ruhl (Wikipedia).


Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater, music, and dance reviews. She is also a writer, editor, writing coach at Reno’s Literary Services of Durham. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.


Dawn Reno Langley is a Roxboro, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and is a member of the Person County Arts Council. Her website is http://www.dawnrenolangley.com