Nestled in the cozy Balch Street Theatre of the Balch Street Community Center, New World Performance Lab is rehearsing for its upcoming performance of “Orlando.” Adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl, the play is based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel“Orlando: A Biography.”
Performances of Orlando will begin Aug. 6 and run during the upcoming Gay Games – a good fit, because the play has a lot to say about sexuality, gender roles and trans issues. But just as one doesn’t have to be gay to enjoy the Games’ sporting events, one definitely doesn’t have to be gay (or trans) to enjoy the romantic and slightly fantastic story of “Orlando.”
The story follows the title character through five different centuries as Orlando, whose gender changes halfway through the story by an unexplained force, and experiences different adventures, romances and heartbreaks. The play is presented by Akron’s Center for Applied Theatre and Active Culture (CATAC). Both CATAC and NWPL are arts partners in the ninth annual Gay Games, being held in Akron and Cleveland from Aug. 9 through 16.
Co-artistically directed by James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta, New World Performance Lab has been active in Northeast Ohio for 20 years. Slowiak, a University of Akron theatrer professor, calls the ensemble “alternative and research oriented… we tend to take a little bit more time to work on our projects, we’d like to explore different methodologies and actor training.” The group has performed around the world and hold what they call “performance ecology workshops” for actor training. New World Performance Lab operates under the fiscal umbrella of CATAC, which supports several other local theater groups as well.
Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West’s son called “Orlando” “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature. Woolf wrote her novel for Vita 86 years ago, but director James Slowiak says that Orlando’s gender ambiguity remains fascinating and mysterious even today. “Is Orlando a man, is Orlando a woman? In our production and in the novel, she spends the fist half as a man and then transforms into a woman. I think what Virginia Woolf was talking about in 1928 in terms of how do we define gender, what is male, what is female, are still very important questions today.” CATAC board member Benjamin Rexroad notes that the play’s themes are particularly relevant to those in the transgender community. He says, “We’re trying to appeal to the LGBT audience as well… we felt that this is a great contribution to help make [the Games] a little more inclusive [towards the trans community].”
New World Performance Lab’s unique staging has no sets, minimal props, and abundant costume changes, fitting the slightly abstract, almost magical feel of the story. Says Slowiak: “We tend to work in what we call a “poor theater” where we don’t use a lot of scenery, where the actor is the most important element for us in what’s happening theatrically. But I think that this play is very spectacular in its poorness.”
Musician Robert Keith will perform his own original score for the production each night, playing several instruments. Slowiak explains, “[Keith has] been working since day one of rehearsals with us creating the sound score as the actors create the staging and as we make decisions about how we’re telling the story. The music is very much a part of the storytelling and it’s constant… he is as present, I think, as anything else on stage.”
“Orlando” is adapted by Sarah Ruhl and directed by James Slowiak.
Cast includes India Burton as Orlando, with Jeremiah Clapp, Jairo Cuesta, Rosilyn Jentner, and Debora Totti.
Show dates are Aug. 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, and 16 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 ($10 for students and Gay Games participants). Performances are at the Balch Street Theatre, 220 South Balch Street, in Akron. For information, call (330) 867-3299 or visit New World Performance Lab’s website at www.nwplab.com.