BWW Review: Soulpepper's ORLANDO is an Impressive, Existential Look into Identity

BWW Review: Soulpepper's ORLANDO is an Impressive, Existential Look into Identity

How can a life be described when the only constants are a name and a poem? In Soulpepper's production of ORLANDO, the title character struggles with existentialism and a fixation on death - something that seems to constantly elude them.

Orlando (Sarah Afful) begins in the Elizabethan age as a young boy and a poet in the Queen's (John Jarvis) court. Throughout the first act, he loves and loses a Russian princess (Maev Beaty), dodges a Romanian Archduchess (Alex McCooeye), flees his home, and by intermission has woken up one morning having turned, inexplicably, into a woman. This development leads to Orlando having to learn how to be a woman, which slides between humor and a critical evaluation of gender roles with ease. Orlando goes on to live well into the 20th century without aging past 36, afraid of the present and caught up in her past.

As Orlando, Afful is a delicate, soft man and a blunt, rowdy woman. Whether waxing poetic, throwing him or themselves around the stage, or simply fixing a suitor with a dumbfounded stare, Afful portrays the complex character wonderfully. She takes the role and makes it all her own in her first moments on stage and only gets better as Orlando's story develops.

As the first true love and heartbreak of Orlando's life, the Russian princess Sasha, Beaty plays the sly woman convincingly and comedically. As Orlando's husband during the Victorian era, Craig Lauzon is the immediately lovable and loving partner who allowed Orlando to question what gender really is - their exchange and disbelief around each other's true genders was charming and sweet, and Lauzon's success in his more humorous roles as the chorus is great to watch. In fact, all three chorus members are fantastic - as the Queen, Jarvis brings the monarch to life with all the attitude of an aging, dramatic Hollywood starlet. Playing the Romanian Archduchess Harriet, McCooeye uses his lanky frame and great voice to lead his character through her own developments, all while dropping some of the play's best jokes.

The small ensemble utilized the theatre space fully and to great success - the simple white stage (Lorenzo Savoini), set with an era-appropriate chair and door, highlights the actors' performances well. Savoini's work in lighting design for the show is equally impressive. The costuming (Gillian Gallow) transcends time and gender for the entire cast. The approach to the chorus' outfitting was especially interesting - all are dressed in suits that include traditionally feminine pieces, sometimes hidden by a jacket and sometimes used by the actor to encourage the fluidity of clothing. Orlando's outfits, regardless of what time they're living in, are nothing short of beautiful. The most striking are her Victorian and Elizabethan gowns, and Afful's approach to how she carries Orlando differently in each outfit only adds more to her character.

ORLANDO is a powerful look into gender, power, self and society that meets its loudest, most confusing moments with total silence. Whether familiar with the Virginia Woolf novel that serves as its genesis or not, Soulpepper's production leaves viewers with more questions than answers - leading to some real self-searching and probably a fair share of existential crises.

Soulpepper's ORLANDO runs through July 29 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

main photo: Sarah Afful in ORLANDO, by Aleksandar Antonijevic

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