‘Orlando’ Review: A Virginia Woolf Fantasy That Plays With Gender

There’s a slight pause and a knowingly raised eyebrow — enough to provoke laughter from the audience — when the title character of “Orlando” begins to introduce himself with this line: “He — for there could be no doubt of his sex.”

But the play is set in a universe in which there is, in fact, doubt. And this Orlando is played by the protean writer and performer Taylor Mac, who delivers the line while cutting a resplendent androgynous figure in shiny red boots and white, vaguely Elizabethan garb.

Sarah Ruhl’s play, in a revival that opened on Sunday at Signature Theater, is an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s fantasy of the same title. Published in 1928, the book has traversed the decades as seemingly unscathed by time as its protagonist. When it starts, Orlando is a 16-year-old boy during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. About halfway through, he abruptly wakes up as a woman, and continues on, barely aging, until the story ends in the Roaring Twenties. Orlando might still be at it somewhere, for all we know.

In an era of questioning and rethinking gender norms, you can see why this tale would particularly resonate — and indeed we just can’t seem to quit it. In the past few years alone, the philosopher Paul B. Preciado explored his path as a trans man through the mirror of Woolf’s novel in his film “Orlando, My Political Biography,” Emma Corrin starred in Neil Bartlett’s 2022 stage adaptation, and in 2019 the director Katie Mitchell and the playwright Alice Birch offered their own take.

Ruhl’s version premiered Off Broadway in 2010, and casting Mac, a shape-shifter of the highest order, in this revival’s main role is certainly a coup. Will Davis’s production, however, seems to think that’s enough.

The show gets off to a clunky start, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall and using that device as a crutch. This may be an attempt to echo Woolf’s own distancing technique (she styled the novel as a biography), but it just comes across as broad, as if Davis didn’t trust that the text’s humor would still charm us. Mac is also a little tentative at first, which is odd for a performer known for boundary-crossing fearlessness. (Mac’s most recent creation, the musical epic “Bark of Millions,” paid tribute to queer figures.)

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