Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando is a strange bird. Ostensibly the biography of a young noble — a would-be poet who is brought into the court of Queen Elizabeth I and who, partway through a vibrant five-century life, becomes a woman — is actually a tribute to the author’s lover, fellow writer Vita Sackville-West, whom Orlando personifies.

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This article was published 26/11/2021 (183 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando is a strange bird. Ostensibly the biography of a young noble — a would-be poet who is brought into the court of Queen Elizabeth I and who, partway through a vibrant five-century life, becomes a woman — is actually a tribute to the author’s lover, fellow writer Vita Sackville-West, whom Orlando personifies.

American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation is an equally strange bird. Eschewing the more conventional "loosely based" approach taken by Sally Potter’s 1992 film, Ruhl uses narration, not dialogue, relying mostly on Woolf’s own words to convey the story almost exactly as written.

<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Em Siobhan McCourt as Orlando with the chorus (from left) Simon Bracken, Simon Miron, Breton Lalama, and Ivy Charles, during the dress rehearsal.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Em Siobhan McCourt as Orlando with the chorus (from left) Simon Bracken, Simon Miron, Breton Lalama, and Ivy Charles, during the dress rehearsal.

The reason we read Orlando still is because of Woolf’s language, imagery and ideas, not because it’s a gripping tale. Though it thrums with passion, the character at its centre is oddly hollow, an allegorical vessel.

Without her extended musings on nature and the nature of time, on writing, on death, the "plot" of Woolf’s novel is not particularly engaging, as trenchant as its observations about gender remain.

All this is to say that if Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s season-opener is something more to be ardently admired than outright loved, the fault lies largely with the material, not the production, which is a gorgeous example of theatre magic — a billowing sheet becomes the thawing Thames or a wedding veil, a royal gown transforms into a bed — filled with lovely performances and no small amount of joy.

For the debut play of her pandemic-delayed first season as RMTC artistic director, Kelly Thornton has chosen a work (130 minutes with intermission) that immediately reminds the audience of the wonder of creative stage design, lighting and music, the delight of a cast that clicks.

Em Siobhan McCourt’s performance is beautifully fluid as the title character evolves over the centuries, his shock of turquoise hair replaced by blue-green ringlets. His Orlando is boyish and wide-eyed before gaining a David Bowie-esque glamour; her Orlando is commanding even as she’s coquettish, learning "the privileges and penalties of her position" as a woman.

A choreographed chorus — Simon Bracken, Ivy Charles, Breton Lalama and Simon Miron — provide narration and witty asides while acting as seamless scene shifters and playing myriad other roles.

<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Em Siobhan McCourt as Orlando with the chorus (from left) Simon Bracken, Simon Miron, Breton Lalama, and Ivy Charles, during the dress rehearsal.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Em Siobhan McCourt as Orlando with the chorus (from left) Simon Bracken, Simon Miron, Breton Lalama, and Ivy Charles, during the dress rehearsal.

Miron’s imperious Queen Elizabeth I is ridiculously regal, while his Scottish housekeeper provides comic relief.

Lalama, who also plays Orlando’s sweet husband Marmaduke, is uproarious as the archest and cattiest member of the chorus; Bracken is the Archduchess/duke of Romania, who loves Orlando, but proves himself unworthy when admitting "allowances must be made" for her sex.

Sophie Smith-Dostmohamed is a sultry presence as Sasha, the ravishing Muscovite princess who is cavalier with Orlando’s heart, while Charles plays Orlando’s spurned fiancée, Euphrosyne, with foot-stamping pique.

Costumes by Leanne Foley aren’t the typical period piece concoctions, but highly stylized pieces full of whimsy and pops of unusual colour.

And if the story itself feels remote and without universal appeal, it’s wonderful to witness a production that’s so in sync and fully committed.

jill.wilson@winnipegfreepress.com

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.