Exploring Gender and Identity in ‘Orlando’

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Introduction

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.

Background of the Play

Sarah Ruhl’s play 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.

Recent Adaptations

In an era of questioning and rethinking gender norms, you can see why this tale would particularly resonate. In recent years, the story has been revisited in various forms. 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.

Review of the Revival

Ruhl’s version of “Orlando” premiered Off Broadway in 2010, and casting Taylor Mac in the main role in this revival is certainly a coup. However, the production seems to rely heavily on Mac’s performance. 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, but it just comes across as broad. Mac is also a little tentative at first, which is odd for a performer known for boundary-crossing fearlessness.

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