‘Orlando’ Reclaims a Queer Text

When in my 23rd year amid the second decade of the 21st century, I awoke one morning a woman, my relationship, too, evolved from heterosexual to lesbian. And, like any good lesbian couple, we bought a corny secular saint candle of Virginia Woolf to display on our bookshelf.

By this point, I’d already read Mrs. Dalloway, Three Guineas, and essential feminist text A Room of One’s Own. I’d also read aloud to my partner Woolf’s love letters with Vita Sackville-West, a collection I’d gifted her for Christmas our first year together, which suggests I had been a dyke all along. Soon after transitioning, I decided it was time to read Orlando, Woolf’s gender-bending tribute to Sackville-West, imagining her lover as a former count who survived centuries and, at one point, became a countess.

Like any saint — secular or otherwise — there are many versions of Virginia Woolf awaiting our projection. There is Woolf the woman, Woolf the lesbian, Woolf the depressive, Woolf the bisexual, Woolf the feminist, Woolf the writer, Woolf the political thinker, Woolf the humorist, and, I would argue, a Woolf separate from womanhood altogether — or, at least, our modern conception of that word.

What inspires a person who claims to detest masculinity to imagine her female lover was once a man? Does the gender-bending conceit of Orlando exist only to make essentialist points about living in society as a woman? Or is it a queer celebration of biological defiance? Is Virginia Woolf the Patron Saint of old school feminism? Or is she a reminder that gender deviance has always existed? Ultimately, these questions become one: Does Orlando, the novel, belong to the cis feminists or to the transsexuals?

These questions are at the forefront of the new Signature Theatre adaptation of the novel, written by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Will Davis, and performed by a queer cast led by Taylor Mac in the titular role. They are not questions with answers — that would be too binary — but questions with gifts, inspiration for creation. This Orlando is a joyous reclamation. It is the queering of a queer text, a snatching of Woolf away from her status as stodgy feminist and back to her rightful place as queer radical.

In many ways, Orlando is a truthful adaptation. Ruhl is an accomplished playwright and she condenses and captures the novel with sharp humor and surprising pathos. But it’s the direction and performances that explode the source material.

On a large, barren stage Taylor Mac is dressed in period garb, joined by a company largely in tracksuits. Throughout, the company shifts between a sort of Greek chorus and filling individual roles in Orlando’s story signified by new costumes — ranging from elaborate gorgeous queer outfits to comical lo-fi transformations.

Mac and the company move around tables and rolling office chairs, harsh visible lights filling the stage. But, like the costuming, the stagecraft will occasionally find a new voice, a heightening that informs the audience all previous choices have, indeed, been choices.

The cast is filled with queer legends and talented up-and-comers of stage and screen. Mac is joined by Janice Amaya, Nathan Lee Graham, Lisa Kron, Jo Lampert, TL Thompson, and Rad Pereira and each performer is as good in their solo moments as they are as an ensemble. The approach feels more akin to clowning than what one would expect from a Virginia Woolf adaptation and the result is, put simply, really fun.

When famous people die by suicide, they are often unfairly defined by their depression. Woolf is thought of as a very serious literary figure, but as a display outside the theatre reminds audiences, not only is Orlando a fun novel, Woolf had fun writing it. That joy from the text is brought to the stage — not in an empty Queer Joy™ sort of way but as a meaningful expression of queer artistic collaboration.

The ache of Orlando’s heartbreaks, the challenges that accompany manhood, womanhood, and everything in between, and the weight of the centuries that pass hit with a feeling only possible due to all the fun. There is power in play, in queer artists having fun. Like Woolf as she wrote the source material, this production proves that artistic precision can be in service of joy, that lightness and depth are not contradictory.

There were many sides to Virginia Woolf and there are many perceptions of her as an icon. This play focuses on the writer as one of us, as a queer artist finding delight in using her talents to pay tribute to her friend, her love, her queer community.


Orlando is at Signature Theatre through May 12. 

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 538 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. Sackville West, who is portraied in Orlando, used male name and pronouns, and also wrote himself as a male character in one of his novels. Orlando was written as a game Woolf and he played together, looking for fictional portraits etc of the characters. The images were included in the first edition.
    One could either say it is a game of empathy, or even an explanation of transsexuality, referring to former lives.
    Homosexuality and transsexuality were blended as usual in the idea of inversion, which can also be seen in Woolf calling Shelmerdine, the stand in for Sackville Wests gay husband, a female soul in a male body.

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