Review: Orlando (Soulpepper)

Photo of Sarah Afful and Maeve BeattySoulpepper’s adaptation of classic novel, now on the Toronto stage, is “appealing all around”

The stage of the Michael Young Theatre is set as you walk in for Soulpepper‘s Orlando. It feels like we’re in the foyer of a Parisian castle. Then cast member John Jarvis sets down a white chair and announces the beginning of the Elizabethan age.

What follows is a playful romp through the pages of Virginia Woolf’s classic book, Orlando. A fantastical tale about a starry-eyed boy-poet who wakes up one day as a woman, Soulpepper’s stage rendition of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel is wildly charming, full of passion, play and wit.

The production is appealing all around. Sarah Afful–who plays the title character, Orlando–leads with reckless abandon. She’s able to embody a mid-16th century nobleman without even batting an eyelash. This “gender-bending” aspect is one of the most interesting parts of the production for me. All 5 cast members play, at some point in the show, both a man and a woman.

For example, Maev Beatty’s Sasha is mistaken for a boy in an ushanka hat as she skates past Orlando. John Jarvis dons a frizzy red wig and corset over a dress shirt and tie, transforming himself into an androgynous version of Queen Elizabeth. Alex McCooeye sweeps across the stage in a long black skirt and a frilly cravat, allowing a seamless transition between his female and male characters.

I don’t usually single out costume design, but I feel like I have to in this case. The designs are not only gorgeous, with eye-catching florals you might only find on the runways of Alexander McQueen, but they also served the story in ingenious ways. Costume changes replace set changes here as we jump from the Elizabethan era to the present. Orlando does her costume changes on stage, moaning as she’s forced in and out of restrictive period clothing. This element of the production, in my opinion, is truly the “star” of this show.

The cast as a whole is impressive, too; however, there are a couple of standout performances I’d like to mention.

Alex Mcooeye is a commanding presence in his many roles, especially as the cross-dressing, sputtering Archduke. His scenes with Orlando as he desperately tries to win her over are as heartbreaking as they are funny.

Meanwhile, John Jarvis’s Queen Elizabeth steals every scene. He brings a sneaky sort of attitude to the role that is just so thrilling to watch.

The story flowed well until the last ten minutes or so. Without spoiling what happens, I felt that the ending was a little lacklustre and was almost “explained away.” There is narration throughout the show that hadn’t felt forced until we arrived at the “wrap up point,” and maybe I just didn’t “get” the ending, but it did leave me feeling unsatisfied.

Despite the slightly thin ending, Orlando still has a lot to say. Soulpepper‘s production couldn’t be more topically relevant to today’s social climate. In the play, Orlando sees what it’s like to live as a woman, and as he yells out in shock that he can’t believe that society expects him to spend an hour on his hair every morning, the audience snickers in unison. It’s a clear sign of the times.

In short: come for the gorgeous production and stay for the ingenious social commentary.


Photo of Sarah Afful and Maeve Beatty by Aleksander Antonijevic