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'Orlando' Blooms

Rogue Theatre presents a terrific production of a problematic script

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Tucson theatergoers have come to expect some of the most challenging and thought-provoking material from The Rogue Theatre, and more often than not its productions are well-performed and painstakingly directed.

For example, few companies in these parts have the fearlessness to continue to tackle the works of Chekhov, Genet, Pirandello, Joyce, Brecht and Beckett, and the audiences generally show up. The Rogue probably attracted its highest acclaim for its award-winning production of Edward Albee's The Goat a year ago.

To kick off 2009, the company takes on Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's thorny, time-traveling novel examining gender and identity. It is running through Feb. 8 in the Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art.

Under the steadfast direction of Cynthia Meier, the production tickles the fancy and challenges conventions. And Meier's cast is uniformly vivacious, subtle and possessed of a sophisticated wit--they do a great job.

MacArthur Fellowship-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl wrote the adaptation as a pseudo-farce, with much room for delightful entertainment and extravagant confusion, but throbbing with an undercurrent of a genuine philosophical quest.

As Meier notes in the program, Woolf wrote the novel in the 1920s as a tribute to her occasional lover, Vita Sackville-West. It is meant to be a veiled roman à clef, tracing the life changes Sackville-West experiences, but telescoped to cover 350 years.

Orlando is depicted as both man and woman, struggling with gender confusion and ambiguous sexuality, encountering complicated tectonic shifts in morality as the play jumps around from the Elizabethan Age to the jazz age.

When first we meet Orlando, he is a young, beautiful boy in the court of a lascivious, walrus-like Queen Elizabeth. Patty Gallagher, with wide, piercing blue eyes and a luxurious mane of strawberry-blonde hair, makes the ideal boy-girl as Orlando. She gives Orlando's quizzical reaction to the changing world a charming faux-innocence, not unlike that of Candide (another classical boy-child confronting a world of wonder and threat).

Orlando falls in love a few different times during his centuries-spanning life, first, and perhaps most significantly, with the voluptuous Russian beauty Sasha, played with a Boris-and-Natasha accent by an otherwise disarming Avis Judd. Sasha eventually betrays and leaves Orlando, creating a sense of abandonment that will dog and confuse him throughout his life, even when he becomes a woman and falls in love with a man.

Pivotal in the storytelling is the five-man chorus of Nic Adams, David Morden, Brendan Guy Murphy, John Shartzer and J. Andrew McGrath, aka Rogue artistic director Joseph McGrath. This squad is brilliantly deployed throughout the play to not only narrate, comment on and consult in the action, but to play many ancillary characters, do some singing and delightfully portray important set pieces, such as a mighty oak and a shattered mirror.

Because the simple thrust stage is nearly bare, save for a fixture or piece of furniture here and there, the chorus' collective performance--using a multitude of wigs, costumes and masks hanging at the ready on the back wall--provided much of the visual fun in the production.

Musicians Paul Amiel and Harlan Hokin, who also is the musical director, do a terrific job, using traditional folk, familiar symphonic melodies and original compositions to depict all the eras covered by Orlando. Their presence in the production is not only essential but a source of much joy.

As well as the cast and company works on Orlando, Ruhl's adaptation left this viewer with a flat feeling. The play's structure is that of a series of vignettes, sketched in with the feeling of the anarchic play-within-a-play device so handily employed in some of Shakespeare's works.

One might argue that Orlando over-ambitiously attempts to depict a sexual revolution in two and a half hours, during which time the viewer is asked to question her or his preconceptions about gender roles against the backdrop of various eras. In a way, the content of the play becomes its context.

Despite the cast's game efforts to make Orlando feel like real drama, the play constitutes a polemic meant to inspire audiences to question their preconceptions. Self-definition and, in some cases, necessary redefinition of the self is the goal. But the scenes--leapfrogging through the centuries--come off at times like individual premises in an extended debate.

And this debate takes place in the early part of the 20th century, so it feels a tad dated. In terms of gender identity and sexual questioning, it says far less to a 21st-century viewer than does the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a superb production of which closed last week at Live Theatre Workshop. Nevertheless, and especially for the richness of the performances, this well-polished production is worth the trip.

By the way, if you attend, don't wait to show up until just before curtain. There is limited seating in the Cabaret Theatre, and the company performs wonderful pre-show music 15 minutes before showtime. A post-show discussion follows each performance.

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