Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando at Manbites Dog Is Comedic, Queer, and Contemplative

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

In the Russian tradition of Stanislavski, the actor says, “I will tell you a story about me.”

In the German tradition of Brecht, the actor says, “I will tell you a story about them.”

In the Vietnamese tradition, the actor says, “You and I will tell each other a story about all of us.”

From In Vietnam, Telling Stories About “All of Us” by Ron Jenkins

Sarah Ruhl, in her poetic adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s satiric novel Orlando: A Biography invites us, the audience, to immerse ourselves in the telling of our story. According to Ruhl, this story is about “the act of writing.” Woolf’s prose inspires Ruhl’s poetry, which becomes Orlando’s own.

Blending fairytale and political discourse, Woolf and Ruhl have imagined a Forrest Gump-like universe in which one individual influences the course of human history through myriad run-ins with characters both real and imagined. The well-known little bookworm who stepped through the looking-glass may have gone on an adventure of mythic proportions, but her journey lasted only a short while. Orlando blossoms from innocent lad into a knowledgeable woman over the course of five centuries across three continents.

With their production of Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando, as part of Manbites Dog Theater’s “Other Voices” guest series, The Delta Boys theater company has taken Woolf’s odyssey and deposited the audience directly into it. Elsa Hoffman’s intricate and impressive cut metal designs are illuminated to bring both life and shadow to this fairytale landscape. (Arrive early to take in the gallery of her work in the lobby.) Kim Black’s multipurpose costumes highlight the genderqueer aspects of the story, allowing performers to transform between characters with ease and clarity, while emphasizing the gendering of clothing throughout history; and Joseph Amodei’s locomotive lighting design echoes Ruhl’s dreamlike verse. Drina Dunlap stage manages this hyperactive production with dexterity.

The Delta Boys pride themselves on avoiding what they call “directorial hierarchy,” in that they do not assign such a formidable task to one artist’s eye, but rather the designers and performers collaborate on a cohesive, panoramic experience for the spectator. It is, perhaps, a lack of singular vision that makes this production so engaging and surprising.

The staging, at moments, suffers from a lack of awareness of sight lines. This show employs profile staging, with half of the audience facing the other half, plus the evocative introduction of the chorus, as well as a clever special effect. Consequently, some of the action is invisible to one side of the crowd or the other. While this is the paramount felony of the staging, a few misdemeanors of visibility can be forgiven, since the piece bounces from place to place with such rapidity that one misses very little in the way of important moments.

Ruhl’s textual notes request five performers. Orlando is most certainly to be played by a female actor; and, in this case, Emily Anderson was an unerring choice. Her honesty and enthusiasm transcends the gender binary and her personable Orlando, both male and female manifestations, finds authenticity in the magic.

The rest of the cast serve as a part Greek chorus, part Elizabethan clowning troupe. An amusing Skylar Gudasz as the Russian lover Sasha et al. and a dynamic and regal Rajeev Rajendran (the only male cast member) as Queen Elizabeth I inject much spirit into the storytelling.

Two cast members stand out conclusively: Caitlin Wells, whose intense passion and rigorous timing present The Archduchess and a multiplicity of other characters from which one cannot look away. The ever-androgynous Dale Wolf continues to prove herself as one of the area’s most versatile actors, with a toolbox of a thousand faces and a characteristic physical presence.

Though some awkward staging distracts momentarily, Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando shows that the oldest forms of storytelling, with mime, magic, and music, are alive and well in Durham. When the last light flickered off at the end of last Sunday’s evening performance, a full, and very diverse, house jumped to its feet in celebration of this delightful blend of the comedic, the queer, and the contemplative.

This production, whose tickets are priced at less than half the show’s true value, runs a crisp 80 minutes, with no intermission. We are in a PG-13 fairyland, with some brief nudity, bits of innuendo, and a smidgen of naughty language.

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

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 18th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 5 of 5 stars): and Jan. 11th mini-preview by Byron Woods:; and Jan. 17th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 13th Triangle Review review by Dawn Reno Langley, click

The Delta Boys present ORLANDO at 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

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Orlando: A Biography (1928 novel): (Wikipedia).

The Novel (excerpt): (Google Books).

Virginia Woolf (English writer, 1882-1941): (British Library bio), (Encyclopædia Britannica bio), and (Wikipedia).

Orlando (2003 Hollywood and 2010 Off-Broadway play, adapted from the original by Virginia Woolf): (Samuel French, Inc.), (Sarah Ruhl’s web page), (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).

The Play (excerpt): (Samuel French, Inc.).

Study Guide: (Court Theatre in Chicago, IL).

Sarah Ruhl (Wilmette, IL-born playwright): (official website), (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).


Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.