Sarah Ruhl

Play or Poem?

Review of Orlando at Yale Summer Cabaret

Orlando, the final show of the Yale Summer Cabaret season, directed by artistic director Sara Holdren, presents the kind of frenetic, improvisatory work that has been a hallmark of the season. But this time, the only devised aspect is the staging. The script is by Sarah Ruhl, from Virginia Woolf’s novel, untampered with by the Rough Magic Company. Having seen the company have its way with Shakespeare and Marlowe, we might wonder if other takes on Woolf’s text might present themselves, which is a way of asking, I suppose: how successful is Orlando as a play? Prose stylists like Woolf might be said to be best in their own element: on the page.

Joey Moro’s set takes note of that thought by offering us a long scroll upon which the players cavort as though, literally or literarily, on the page. And that’s as it should be since, as the play goes on, we find ourselves wondering what is “real” and what is merely the fantasy of a would-be poet—Orlando (Elizabeth Stahlmann)—an Elizabethan nobleman seated in the garden of his great estate and dreaming the world and the life to come. A life in which, at age 30 (and the dawn of the 19th century), he becomes a woman.

Much of the brio of Woolf’s novel is in the rendering of a fantasy of the English past from the present (the 1920s), viewing the past with the prescience of the future. The conceit makes for an interesting hybrid interplay—between the past we invent and the past as it was—that Ruhl’s play maintains effectively. The difficulty comes from the fact that Woolf never set herself to write “characters” per se (all are “charactered in the brain” of Orlando); Ruhl gets around this by creating a chorus who can alter as necessary, through the scenes and through the ages.

The cast of Orlando: Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Niall Powderly, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Chalia La Tour, Melanie Field, Leland Fowler

The cast of Orlando: Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Niall Powderly, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Chalia La Tour, Melanie Field, Leland Fowler

That makes for much of the fun here as the staging and costume work is comical, inventive, breathless. My favorite moment features Orlando in a kind of Elizabethan fetish costume (the ruff, the rosettes, the pantaloons) twirling about on a hanging hoop (viewers of Holdren’s fascinating thesis show will recall her work with gymnast-actors) with Sasha (Chalia La Tour, one of the most chameleonic actors currently at the Drama School) in a graceful white cape and white fur cap. Sasha is the best secondary character in the play, if only because La Tour makes her as real as Orlando is. She could easily take over the play, since Orlando sees that she’s way more fascinating than he.

The other characters that interact with Orlando seem more brainspun: Melanie Field has fun with a motorized Queen Elizabeth, a dowager who dotes on a fine leg in tights, and gives our hero a bawdy lesson in a courtier’s duties. Niall Powderly does all he can to make a cross-dressing Romanian count/countess as ridiculous as possible, including an outrageous accent that would do Tim Curry proud. Leland Fowler plays the Byronic Shelmerdine pretty much as written—which is to say that we begin to suspect that Woolf might be fantasizing life in an Emily Brontë novel or as Mary Shelley. Till then, the point has been made, it’s much more exciting—in Orlando’s view—to pursue a female than to be pursued as one. Unfortunately, Shelmerdine, though he receives the accolade of making Lady Orlando feel “a real woman,” might be any well-spoken, well-born hero of many a romance novel, though for Woolf, writing under the spell of Vita Sackville-West, the meeting of soul mates requires that both Orlando and Shelmerdine imagine they are in a same-sex relationship.

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann, Niall Powderly; Back: Melanie Field, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler, Shaunette Renee Wilson

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann, Niall Powderly; Back: Melanie Field, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler, Shaunette Renee Wilson

Ruhl and Woolf take delight in satirizing the ubiquity of marriage, a target that never seems to go out of date, though—in same sex, soulmate terms—it has taken on, in our time, more possibilities than it had for Woolf in the ‘20s. And that’s what helps make Orlando interesting as theater: even more than on the page, we feel the spin through the years (costumes by Fabian Aguilar and Haydee Zelideth are great aids in the fantasia), and we’re even more aware of how the all-important “present moment” infuses our viewing and our experience.

Ultimately, Ruhl’s Orlando “longs to be only one thing” while Holdren’s production, and the mutable Rough Magic company in general, suggests that playing only one character with one gender is a tired approach to theater. In Orlando, Holdren and company find an ideal text for the transformations they’ve played with all summer. And yet, Orlando strikes me as what used to be called “closet drama”—a play to be read and imagined. We become aware of how hard it is to playact Woolfian fictions. Nimble as the Rough Magic troupe is in bringing the play to life on stage, they can at best only approximate the unfettered flight of the poetical mind, as Ruhl’s Orlando only suggests Woolf’s.

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann as Orlando; Back: Shaunette Renee Wilson, Josephine Stewart, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler

Front: Elizabeth Stahlmann as Orlando; Back: Shaunette Renee Wilson, Josephine Stewart, Chalia La Tour, Leland Fowler

Casting only one actor as Orlando brings home the fact that a story, no matter how variously conceived, must always be the story of someone. Stahlmann plays Orlando as if each moment is a new thought, full of fresh insight into what life can offer. She achieves the gusto of the Keatsean ideal of the poetical character (“it is not itself - it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character […] it lives in gusto”), but that makes for a passive hero always amazed at what is happening, much as we are in dreams.

Finally, though, to this production’s credit, Stahlmann makes us feel, more than fiction can, the cost of such flights from one’s time; her Orlando suffers before our eyes as only intensely imagined characters do. In the end, being one thing means being a thing that will end.

By Virginia Woolf / Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Sara Holdren

Scenic Design: Joey Moro; Costume Design: Haydee Zelideth & Fabian Aguilar; Lighting Design: Andrew Griffin; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design: Joey Moro; Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Stage Manager: Emely Zepeda; Photographs: Andrea H. Berman

Ensemble: Orlando: Elizabeth Stahlmann; Chorus: Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Chalia La Tour, Niall Powderly, Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 6-15, 2015


A Dance to the Music of Time

For Sara Holdren, artistic director of the Yale Summer Cabaret, 2015, and director of its final show of the summer, opening tonight, Orlando, above all, requires fluidity. Adapted by Sarah Ruhl from Virginia Woolf’s novel, the play should feel like “a stopper was pulled and rushing waters are flowing like a river.” In thinking of the play during the course of the summer, Holdren says, she began “to really feel like the play is a dance.” In talks with her design team, she has come back again and again to a notion of how spare and simple the set and costuming should be. “Even the actors’ bodies should be like abstract elements.”

This summer’s Cabaret has been strong in physical theater, with varied and inventive improvisations worked upon Shakespeare’s plays, particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, while the second show of the season, love holds a lamp in this little room, was entirely devised by its cast and director Leora Morris. Orlando is the only play this season with a pre-existing script, and, while that might suggest something a bit more straight-forward, Holdren insists that “physical storytelling” is very much the goal. For inspiration, she gave the cast of seven—Melanie Field, Leland Fowler, Chalia La Tour, Niall Powderly, Elizabeth Stahlmann, Josephine Stewart, Shaunette Renée Wilson—“The Storyteller,” an essay by Walter Benjamin that stresses how the oral storytelling tradition, being lost in the era of print, was a matter of gesture, combining hand, eye, soul.

That view suits Ruhl’s play, Holdren says, because the script is all from Woolf’s novel, cut-up and arranged. For Holdren, “all along, a key attraction of the play is the fact that it is narrated.” While for some that very fact sins against the “show don’t tell” mantra that drives much storytelling, the challenge of dramatizing the telling is intrinsic to Holdren’s view of the play. It helps that Ruhl’s play is very unfixed in how it assigns text to character. That leads, in Holdren’s phrase, “to the strange and fortuitous assignment of parts,” based on what the actors do in rehearsal with the voices of the chorus. Much is a matter of gesture indeed.

“Rather than work with a facsimile of a depicted world, Orlando works with the world of telling,” Holdren says, and that world is one that moves from Elizabethan times to post-World War I as narrated by a seemingly ageless protagonist who also alters gender from male to female. The presence of the narrating Orlando, played by Stahlmann, might make the play seem like a tall tale, a story of magical changes and wonders that correspond to the character’s self-conceptions. Orlando is, after all, a poet, and his/her literary efforts are signified by a set shaped like a blank page. What Orlando is writing is, in a sense, both the novel and the play, but, at the same time, the events she experiences are shaping what will be written.

For Holdren and her Rough Magic company this summer, much wonderful theater has come from a similar approach: finding the play through enactment, where the experience of working on the play produces the play. As Holdren points out, even Stanislavski, best known in the U.S. as the theorist behind “the method” school of acting, valued improvisation and allowed that the work of theater could precede text. “Truth on stage,” Holdren says, needn’t be “character-based” in the sense of revealing a consistent psychological portrait. The shows at the Cabaret this summer have been strong in fluid characters changing before our eyes, and with that comes, in Holdren’s view, the possibility of transformation as key to the theatrical experience.

The season has looked at how magic and wonder can be expressed in the telling, in enacting—as with the bewitched actors in Midsummer, or the five enactments of “the Menken” in love holds a lamp in this little room, or the shifting roles of the tripartite Mephisto in Dr. Faustus—the multiplicity of identity. At the same time, all the plays this summer, even if not tragic like Faustus, have kept in touch with a darker side, what Holdren, in speaking of Orlando, calls “death moments.”

At the run-through rehearsal I attended, I could see what she meant. In the character of Woolf herself—as the author behind the narrator—there is a certain element of depression, of finding history and the rigors of either gender not to her liking. She is able to align that element of her own nature with the melancholy that has been fashionable for poetic souls at least since Elizabethan times, and Ruhl’s play and Holdren’s production pick up on that. But, as with all the plays this summer, there is also much fun with the “amorphous multiverse” of theatrical conceptions.

And yet, for all the playfulness of their theatrical conceits, the plays of the Rough Magic season have revealed—in dueling fairies casting spells in strife and in actors shocked by what their playacting reveals of themselves, in the subterfuges by which a consummate performer may divert her audience and deceive herself, in the quest for a kind of immortality that ends in a humbling of vanity—that the spell theater casts is not without its dangers and its discomforts. Orlando celebrates the wit required to endure through the ages, but at the cost, perhaps, of being equal to a particular age. Or as Orlando’s (initial) contemporary might say, “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.”

By Sarah Ruhl, adapted from the novel by Viriginia Woolf
Directed by Sara Holdren

Yale Summer Cabaret, August 6-15, 2015

Poets of the Post

There’s no doubt that Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were two of the most gifted poets of their generation.  And there’s no doubt that theirs was a long-lived relationship of, to some degree, kindred spirits.  Nor is there any surprise in finding that their letters to each other are well worth reading—as glimpses into the working process, into the world of letters in the first exciting decades of post-World War II America, and into the always fraught and dramatic life that seemed de rigueur for any world-conquering poet of the day.  And Dear Elizabeth, the play by Sarah Ruhl adapted from the letters of Bishop and Lowell, and directed by Les Waters, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, dispels any doubt that poets in their prose can make for compelling, moving and satisfying drama. Granted, it helps to be interested in the writing life, and, perhaps, in the relation of these two rare birds, but Dear Elizabeth’s greatest assets are characters who are articulate about their lives, and a time-scheme that roves through the thirty years—from 1947 to 1977—during which the poets corresponded, finding the highlights that make a relationship a story.  The lifelong trade-off began shortly after they first met and continued until Lowell’s death—indeed, Bishop’s last letter to her friend was in the mail when she learned of his fatal heart attack at age 60 (Bishop, six years Lowell’s senior, outlived him by two years).

Creating theater out of the necessarily fragmented view of a relationship contained in letters is no small task, but it’s aided here by the considerable brio with which the letters were written, and by the fact that there was drama enough in the writers’ lives.  During the period covered by the play, Lowell moved from first wife to second to third, and had children with the latter two; Bishop’s partner, architect Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she began living in Brazil in 1951, committed suicide in 1967.  And, from time to time, Lowell was placed under care for attacks of mania, while both poets had on-and-off affairs with the bottle.  In Ruhl’s version, all interlocutors are left offstage; this is a two-person play illuminating how, for writers (and their readers) what they say to each other in writing is the measure of whatever happens in the mundane world where real lives are led.

Ruhl’s script carefully weaves bits of the correspondence into a love story of sorts.  After years of collegial affection, Lowell (Jefferson Mays) seems ready to make things more intimate, perhaps even permanent—one of the most naked moments in the play is when Lowell looks back on an evening when it seemed possible to imagine Bishop and himself as husband and wife, stating that he nearly took the chance to propose but chose to wait for the right moment.  Whatever she actually felt about such confessions, Bishop (Mary Beth Fisher) plays it close to the chest, neither repudiating her would-be lover nor giving him any encouragement.  And yet, as played on stage, Fisher’s Bishop seems a woman who, initially, might be infatuated with Lowell enough to give him the impression he nearly acted on.  At times, Bishop’s replies to Lowell, as he exults about fatherhood or advertises a new bride, seem brittle with envy if not jealousy.

Lowell, meanwhile, tends to brood, moving into so-called ‘confessional poetry’ as a means to make his life meaningful as art.  The play gets some tension out of a terse and anxious exchange when Lowell, in his late poem “The Dolphin,” chooses to use excerpts—doctored to suit his purpose—from letters his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick wrote.  The strength of Bishop’s condemnation of mixing “fact and fiction” spills over into what we might consider to be the sacred and private bond between correspondents—whether Lowell and Hardwick or Lowell and Bishop—so that Bishop, we might say, is seeing her own confidence violated in Lowell’s betrayal of Hardwick.  Even more to the point, her harangue at Lowell might extend beyond his poem to Dear Elizabeth itself, where words never meant to be dramatized find themselves become a script.  Whatever Bishop’s misgivings might be, we accept Ruhl’s intervention: public lives are always to some extent theatrical, and those who write must be ready to be re-written.

As theatrical experience, Dear Elizabeth uses scenic ingenuity to distract us from the fact that everything this play means is in the writing, in the fascinating signals, suggestions, confessions, comments, poem crits, and corrections that these two gifted persons choose to share with one another.  Les Waters and Scenic Designer Adam Rigg have concocted some technical marvels—waters flood the stage at certain times, either stranding the two poets high and dry or allowing Lowell to pace about like a lecturer wading into the shallows.  Elsewhere, Lowell, in one of his manic phases, hitches a ride on a crescent moon through a door.  And, in a tableau that seems quite eloquent about the poets’ respective reputations after death, Bishop, saying she would like to write from another planet, ascends on a mini-planetarium while Lowell gazes up at her from below.  Such stunts could be said either to distract us unnecessarily from the main matter at hand or to provide some moments of visual stimulation in an otherwise static setting—the basic set is a stunningly accurate early Sixties-ish “brown study,” lit to give us times of day and projected upon to give us a sense of the outdoors that the oft-traveling duo travel through.  Such effects mostly work and add interest, though that’s not to say one couldn’t easily imagine a stripped-down version of the play, without the Rep’s technical resources, dispensing with special effects and letting glowing prose provide all the color.

As Bishop, Fisher ages well into the part, from bright-eyed and young, she becomes bright-voiced and older.  Her sense of Bishop’s steadiness never really flags, not even when the poet is getting a bit sloshed and an able stage-hand (Josiah Bania) has to come in to relieve her of her bottle, nor when she's forced to type one-handed due to an operation.  We can intuit Bishop’s demons, but, in the letters used here, she mostly presents Lowell with a stoic outlook on her own travails and his, and crisp commentary on the same.  And Lowell is recreated in a spot-on interpretation so close to the original it's magical: Mays wields the vaguely distracted air and the intense glare, the voice of bemused befuddlement delivering choice aperçus, and, of course, his Lowell is readier than Bishop to wear his Weltschmerz on his sleeve, but never—here anyway—becoming tedious about it.

Dear Elizabeth is a wonderful evocation of friendship, of the passion for the word that can unite lives that but rarely shared the same space—a few “interludes” presented in dumb-show capture the sometimes awkward, or worse, occasions when these two geniuses found themselves in each other’s presence.  The play is wise and wistful, and delights with its slightly arch attitude toward persons who, in their rather single-minded pursuit of the art they shared in common, led messy lives they were never done commenting upon.  Ruhl and Waters also let us consider that behind or beside the gimmicks of art, the rhetoric of poetry, and the feints of personality is, as Dickinson would say, “where the meanings are.”

Dear Elizabeth By Sarah Ruhl A play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again Directed by Les Waters

A World Premiere

Scenic Designer: Adam Rigg; Costume Designer: Maria Hooper; Lighting Designer: Russell H. Campa; Sound Designer: Bray Poor; Projection Designer: Hannah Wasileski; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Kirstin Hodges; Original Music by Bray Poor and Jonathan Bell

Photographs by Joan Marcus, courtesy of The Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre November 30-December 22, 2012

Quiet Desperation

“The mass of men,” wrote Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”  This might well be the signpost hanging over Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a tale of the Pozorov sisters—Olga, Masha, and Irina—as they pine for a life of excitement in Moscow, their former home, while providing the only diversion for a military regiment garrisoned in a provincial Russian town.  The drama of the play comes from allowing us into these lives long enough to watch everything change for the worse. A depressing prospect, indeed.  Yet what makes it entertaining is Chekhov’s view of life as not essentially tragic, so that touches of humor and tenderness, of awkwardness and passion, and other displays of the pathos of personality, involve us but let us keep ourselves a bit distant.  Chekhov’s sisters are stuck there, but we get to watch them for awhile then leave, and one’s feeling about the experience, in the end, is shaped by that final tableau of the trio clumped at the edge of the stage, so near they might almost step off and be free, joining us in the world we’re trapped in, but instead they remain there to mirror for us stoical resignation (Olga), shattered romance (Masha), and dashed hopes (Irina).

Much rides on the last because, as the youngest, Irina is still too young to be crushed and, in this more brisk than yearning version now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, translated by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Les Waters with the Berkeley Rep, she gives us a vision of “the modern woman” forced to make her way herself.  We might well say that the death of the dream of a nostalgia-tinged Moscow that no longer exists, and the desire, in Irina, “to work” and, in Olga, “to know,” and the acceptance, in Masha, “to live,” indicate an improvement in their condition at last.

The best thing about this production is Ruhl’s thoughtful translation which manages to bypass some of the more stilted aspects of translated Chekhov, albeit with liberties—would the doctor really say “shtupping”?—that mostly serve comic purposes.  The feel of the language seems right for the characters, so that even the philosophizing seems character-driven rather than abstract.  Though that’s not to say the production has mastered the play.  The main problem is that there’s too much stage, too much space.  The production has to work hard to create any sense of intimacy on the University Theater stage, and I’ve rarely been so aware, watching a play, of characters as actors standing in place to speak.  This was particularly the case in the final Act outdoors where the set’s huge and uninviting porch simply overwhelmed what the scene needs to express.

Earlier scenes fare better: the best being Act Three in the upstairs bedroom while a fire rages in the town, and the first half keeps the action moving with liveliness between intimate conversations in the foreground and activity at the large diningroom table upstage, and yet, in the opening night show, there was a static quality that seemed to get between us and these people we’ve dropped in on.  The times when we were made to feel like privileged onlookers worked best—Irina being petted by Chebutykin, Vershinin reacting to a message about his wife, the sisters gossiping about their brother Andrei—and one of the marvels of the play is that every character—in a cast of thirteen—gets at least one “moment” to impress a personality upon us.

For that reason, it’s a play where “the support” is extremely important, and much commendation goes to James Carpenter as the fond, drunk, irascible, and perhaps even wise Chebutykin, to Sam Brelin Wright as the dour, mocking and ultimately dangerous Lermontov-wannabe Solyony, to Barbara Oliver, a figure of focused pathos as the used-up servant Anfisa, to Richard Farrell as the servant Ferapont, exhausted by indulging his superiors’ whims, and especially to Emily Kitchens as the repellently selfish Natasha, first Andrei’s fiancée, then wife, whose passive aggressiveness and single-minded conquest of the Pozorov household is both comic and chilling.  A word too for the young soldiers: as the boisterous Fedotik, Brian Wiles knows how to fill a space, and as the more bashful Rode, Josiah Bania made the most of his parting echoes.

In the larger roles, Keith Reddin's Kulygin seems neither comic nor pathetic enough as a cuckolded school master determined to be “content”; Thomas Jay Ryan as Irina’s dutiful beau Baron Tuzenbach gains in stature as the play progresses, his leavetaking from her finding its perfect expression in a request for coffee; as Vershinin, Bruce McKenzie has the bearing of a serious man surprised to find himself still capable of frivolity and affairs of the heart; we sense that we, like the other characters, could never really know him.

Then there are the Pozorovs: Alex Moggridge, as Andrei, seems too often simply awkward, as in Act Three, not giving us any insight into a man who marries a vain woman, unseats his sisters, and nearly gambles away their patrimony; as Irina, Heather Wood takes us from giddy youth to a more weary version quite well, while Wendy Rich Stetson is good both at Olga’s stoicism and her peevishness, together making up the sister most long-suffering but also most secure in herself; as Masha, the linchpin of the play, the sister who should be settled but is anything but, who flirts and wins and loses, Natalia Payne was best at moments of unspoken emotion—as for instance flying to join Vershinin or, with her sisters, staring off into the future at the end—but should be brought up more in the mix: Masha isn’t simply petulant, she’s the throwback to the 19th century novels of adultery—the woman who chose not to make her own way, as Olga and Irina do, but instead married her way into an eternal limbo.  The play, we might say, is only as strong as Masha’s suffering.  In the show on opening night, she was too easily eclipsed, thus slighting the “confirmed desperation” of her love for Vershinin.

On the whole: a well-played and respectful classic needing a bit more fire and movement.

Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov A new version by Sarah Ruhl, with Elise Thoron, Natalya Paramonova, and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati Directed by Les Waters Yale Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre

September 16-October 8, 2011