“I’m to scale now, to fit your kitchen,” explains an unusually servile Kimberly Gilbert midway through Pluto, an at once cosmic and interior drama from the prolific fabulist Steve Yockey. She’s been perched on her knees beneath a large, impressively rendered cherry branch since you came in, since before the play proper had even begun, an admirable show of discipline.
The identity of her character is one of the destabilizing little—although size is relative, as she says—revelations that pervade Yockey’s eerie depiction of a morning on “a day like any other,” to light on a phrase that recurs suspiciously. You’ll need at least a fraction of Gilbert’s patience to enjoy the asymmetrical puzzle Yockey and director Michael Dove have laid out, but if you can surrender to its liberal invocation of dream logic, and beat back the urge to try to, well, solve it, the inquiry is worthwhile. A tip: Keep your program closed until after the show is over. Better yet, don’t take one until you’re on your way out.
What is immediately evident is that something is rotten in wherever-we-are. As harried Elizabeth Miller (Jennifer Mendenhall, in typically fine, unshowy form) returns from her morning grocery run, the refrigerator is vibrating like Sigourney Weaver’s in Ghostbusters and the radio keeps flicking itself on to sketchy reports of a mass shooting. The sheer familiarity of that monstrous phrase is one of the horrors Yockey has factored into his existential calculus. All we want when we hear it is for the world to snap back to its familiar mirage of peace and rationality. You can’t blame Elizabeth for trying to shut out the world.
Things seem to resume their workaday shape once Bailey (Mark Halpern), her sullen college-aged son, surfaces from his basement bedroom. Like John Bowhers’ cutaway set of the middle-class kitchen in which the entire play, more or less, takes place, their chit-chat seems perfectly ordinary; the little rivulets of information that trickle out about Elizabeth’s deceased husband feel natural. Elizabeth is relieved to see her sweet boy with his nose in his astronomy textbook but takes the book, as parents invariably shall, as an invitation to talk.
Yockey has found an ingenious way to express Elizabeth’s sympathetic but addlebrained sense of things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be: She’s incensed to be told that Pluto—named, you may recall, for the Greek god of the underworld—has been downgraded to dwarf status since the days when she used a mnemonic device to remember the orbital sequence of the planets. “Write a strongly worded letter,” Bailey tells her.
Mendenhall and Halpern’s rapport is easy to buy. Every now and then, Gilbert is called to interject some metaphysical gibberish, as though a gust of wind had blown the tarp off of the source code of the universe and she can’t help shouting it aloud. Gilbert can do anything, and she sells it. Brynn Tucker is less confident as a volatile ex of Bailey’s. She plays her scenes in the key of shrill, and there’s a reason for that, but it doesn’t seem like the most invigorating choice available to her. David Zimmerman, who has the advantage of a late and spectacular entrance, lands closer to what he’s circling. Though he projects power and mystery, you get the sense he’s just a cog in a vast and invisible machine. (And also in a visible machine, thanks to some sly costume design by Frank Labovitz.) It’s Mendenhall and Halpern’s show, however. Their relationship is the heart of this odd thing, and even though you’ll probably guess where it’s heading, their tender, layered performances give it the force of an epiphany.
Adapted by Sarah Ruhl from the novel by Virginia Woolf
Directed by Amber Jackson
WSC Avant Bard at Theatre on the Run to March 23
Sarah Ruhl, the celebrated playwright of In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and many others, would appear to be an inspired choice to adapt Orlando, Virgina Woolf’s 1928 novel based on the life of her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. Loosely based. Which is to say, West probably was not born a man (nor early enough in the 16th century to have bedded Queen Elizabeth I), is unlikely to have changed genders in her sleep when she was 30 some six or seven decades later, and then probably did not live on to become a celebrated author during the Jazz Age, by which time she’d reached the ripe old age of 36. (The novel was also a sort of parody of the earnest autobiographies penned by Woolf’s father.)
“Orlando had become a woman,” Woolf wrote. “There is no denying it.” Nor is there any denying that the script director Amber Jackson has put on stage for WSC Avant Bard, first performed in 2010, is more Woolf than Ruhl. The playwright transposes thick slices of Woolf’s canny prose intact, though she ricochets the narration among four mouths—Orlando’s and three chorus members’. Orlando refers to him-then-herself in the third person here, as in Sally Potter’s 1992 Tilda Swinton–starring film version. “When I was a young man I insisted that women be obedient, chaste, and scented,” the Lady Orlando rues. “Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires.”
Surprisingly, the story doesn’t seem to acquire much new resonance in light of the unprecedented attention transgender issues are now receiving. Orlando bristles, initially, at the confining and impractical nature of 18th century ladies’ clothing and needs a moment to adjust to the new register of her voice, but seems to adapt rather effortlessly to life as a woman. Particularly in this brisk telling, which has an intermission but still claims less than two hours of your evening. Even when she’s trying to rebuff a man’s unwanted affections—repeatedly cheating in a bet, for example, in the hope the guy will discover she’s rooking him and then leave her alone—there’s no sense that this could ever amount to a threat; it’s merely an annoyance. That’s the book. Still, a 2014 production should reckon with it somehow.
This Orlando’s Orlando is the luminous Sara Barker, a WSC company member who should be seen on stage more often than she is, and despite her, well, boyishness in the early scenes—wherein Orlando romances a Russian princess of suspect royalty (Amanda Forstrom)—she’s far more convincing as a woman.
Orlando’s transformation, conveyed in tasteful Bond-title-sequence-style silhouette from behind a backlit sheet, is one of Jackson’s bravura moments. Another is when the chorus assembles a car for Orlando from two umbrellas and two chairs. The show would benefit enormously from many more such feats of low-tech invention, which help to mitigate Ruhl’s practice of telling-and-not-showing—if only out of deference to Woolf, who told it all so stylishly. But the feeling of having a novel read aloud to you is a little too prevalent.
Steven Royal’s set is a sort of gilded lattice of cardboard cut into snowflakelike patterns and painted in a metallic hue; it gives the tight confines of Theatre on the Run’s black-box space an illusion of greater depth than it actually has. It’s suited, then, to this lighter-than-air Orlando. It’s fleet and fetching with lots of energy. Its pleasant effects would be more lasting if the staging were as eloquent as the words.