'Orlando' review — literary classic whimsically explores gender identity

Read our review of Orlando off Broadway, a revival of Sarah Ruhl's play adapted from the same-named Virginia Woolf novel with Taylor Mac in the title role.

Austin Fimmano
Austin Fimmano

Virginia Woolf’s eclectic time-traveling novel Orlando: A Biography has been adapted many times, but the saga of an Elizabethan nobleman who mysteriously becomes a woman and lives for centuries is still one that delights audiences. Signature Theatre’s Off-Broadway production takes this classic story for a riotous jaunt that is sure to never take itself too seriously.

Orlando’s long life sees a string of historical eras and enthusiastic suitors of all genders pass by. Woolf wrote about her own unique book that “it is all a joke,” and playwright Sarah Ruhl, who adapted the book for the stage, followed suit. Orlando is light and eccentric, drawing laughs from the audience every few minutes. The jokes sometimes fall flat, however, and the narrative can tend to be lost in the pursuit of whimsy. With nothing real to say, the humor in Ruhl’s script is enjoyable but in danger of wearing thin. 

The character Orlando is based on Woolf’s lover and fellow artist Vita Sackville-West. Published in 1928, Orlando’s casual gender-bending was revolutionary for its time. While the concept may not be shocking today, Ruhl’s adaptation offers a comedic, sweet, and at times pensive tale. Director Will Davis’s vision has turned it from a love letter between two women into a love letter to the queer community. For possibly the first time in the history of Orlando adaptations, the cast is entirely queer and is mostly made up of trans, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming performers. They’re a stellar ensemble, all with an irresistible playfulness that can’t help but seep into the story. Taylor Mac’s Orlando is the most playful of all, with a seductive stage presence and a fabulous number of dramatic costume changes.

Even with a script that has nothing groundbreaking to add to the book’s themes, the entire production has a mischievous, almost conspiratorial approach to narrating Orlando. They’re only too willing to let us, the audience, in on the joke. 

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Orlando summary

Seasoned playwright Ruhl has taken her “favorite, most theatrical bits” from Woolf’s original novel Orlando and adapted them for the stage. Orlando is an aristocrat during the Elizabethan era who, as a young boy, catches the eye of Queen Elizabeth herself. After suffering heartbreak and unwanted advances, Orlando decides to leave England and inexplicably lives for another few centuries until, one morning, Orlando wakes up as a woman.

She returns home, coming to terms with the reality of her new social standing, and watching as the turns of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries bring more surprises than she could have anticipated. Mac expertly navigates the emotion of Orlando’s long and varied life as Orlando searches for meaning in it all. 

What to expect at Orlando

Ruhl’s adaptation of Orlando pulls heavily from the source material, which can end up feeling like a distant narration rather than an emotionally involved story. That said, the cast are all endlessly personable. Laughs abound throughout the duration of the show’s 100-minute runtime. At my performance, Nathan Lee Graham’s hilariously over-the-top Queen Elizabeth I was a definite audience favorite, but Mac and all the ensemble members leave distinct comedic marks. The scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado is relatively bare but effective, and Oana Botez’s inventive costuming is a highlight of the performance.

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What audiences are saying about Orlando

Orlando has a 70% approval rating on Show-Score with many people praising the cast, the subject matter, and the costumes.

  • “A clever, boundary-breaker play is performed by a talented ensemble led by a strong Taylor Mac in great costumes…” - Show-Score user Elisa 9119
  • “Parts felt a bit like an SNL sketch with the over-the-top acting.” - Show-Score user chris_
  • “The real event is watching Taylor Mac’s Orlando transform from a giddy ambitious teenager to a wistful, middle-aged woman.” - Show-Score user MSS

Who should see Orlando

  • Fans of the work of Taylor Mac, Sarah Ruhl, Virginia Woolf, or any combination of the three will adore this playful addition to their accomplishments.
  • Appreciators of genre-and gender-bending theater will enjoy the way Orlando pushes the boundaries of what to expect from an Off-Broadway show.
  • Anyone looking for a good laugh is sure to be satisfied at Orlando, where the cast and the irreverent script will keep the audience chuckling throughout the performance.

Learn more about Orlando off Broadway

Orlando is a fun-loving romp through concepts that are no longer revolutionary but still essential to explore. With intentional casting and whimsical performances, this production will be a treat for audiences.   

Learn more and get Orlando tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Orlando is at Signature Theatre through May 12.

Photo credit: Orlando off Broadway. (Photos by Joan Marcus)

Originally published on

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