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Unseam'd goes beyond Shakespeare to tackle Woolf classic 'Orlando'

| Thursday, June 5, 2014, 8:55 p.m.
Amy Landis as Orlando and Andy Kirtland as the Captain in Unseam'd Shakespeare Company's 'Orlando.'
Robert C.T. Steele
Amy Landis as Orlando and Andy Kirtland as the Captain in Unseam'd Shakespeare Company's 'Orlando.'
Amy Landis as Orlando and Jonathan Visser as the Archduchess in Unseam'd Shakespeare's 'Orlando.'
Andy Kirtland
Amy Landis as Orlando and Jonathan Visser as the Archduchess in Unseam'd Shakespeare's 'Orlando.'

As it enters its 21st season, the Unseam'd Shakespeare Company is once again widening its mission.

The company began in 1994 with the seemingly reckless teen mission to unseam the classics — most often, those from the Elizabethan period — from the nave to the chops.

It now defines itself with a more stately mission as “a professional theater company dedicated to rediscovering and reinventing classic and classically inspired plays for modern audiences … in artistically ambitious and innovative productions.”

It still stages modern interpretations of William Shakespeare's plays — last season's “The Tempest, or The Enchanted Isle”; a macabre, post-apocalyptic, gender-bending “Macbeth” for three performers in 2009; and “Othello Noir,” a reimagined “Othello” with film noir touches in 2006.

But occasionally, Unseam'd ventures beyond its boundaries, as it did in 2008 and 2011 with “Out of This Furnace” — a play about three generations of a family of Braddock mill workers — or in 2010 with Bradford Woods playwright Amy Hartman's “Mad Honey.”

The company is doing it again with a production of contemporary playwright Sarah Ruhl's “Orlando,” which will run until June 21 at the Henry Heymann Theatre in Oakland.

“Orlando,” Ruhl's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's classic novel, uses a cast of five to take audiences on a voyage across time, Europe and genders as it follows Orlando, from the time of Queen Elizabeth I into the present day. The poet lives for 400 years, spending the first two centuries as a man before waking one day to discover that he has become a woman.

“I think the production fits well into the idea of expanding on the classics and what is classic, and seeing Shakespeare not as a product but as a muse,” says Andy Kirtland, Unseam'd Shakespeare Company's artistic associate. “We do classics but not in the traditional sense.”

“We are interested in working with new plays and emerging writers,” Unseam'd Shakespeare's artistic and executive director Laura Smiley says. “And (‘Orlando') does have a scene from ‘Othello' in it.”

“Orlando” reflects on the challenges of struggling with self-definition and reconciling the contrast between how the world sees us and how we see ourselves.

“The main metaphor is Orlando's journey trying to find his/her self in his/her journey as a writer,” says Robert C.T. Steele, who is directing and costuming the production.

“This is a big one, but what a great gift for a theater company to do,” Steele says. “Ruhl is part of a small pool of playwrights who trust actors and directors. She expects the material is going to have to change based on the actors who undertake it.”

Unlike some playwrights who offer specific directions on how a scene should be played or the emotions a character is feeling, Ruhl prefaces her script with five pages of instructions that encourage the cast and director to make her play their production.

“The Chorus,” Ruhl writes, “may be cast without regard to gender, may be double cast, may be played by as few as three actors and as many as eight, but the author suggests a chorus of three gifted men to play the roles.”

Amy Landis plays Orlando, while Kirtland, Lisa Ann Goldsmith, Brett Sullivan Santry and Jonathan Visser alternate among the play's other 17 cross-gender roles that range from Queen Elizabeth to a Russian Sea Man.

Because Ruhl leaves it up to each cast and director to decide how the lines and roles will be divided, rehearsals require extra time and energy to experiment with what works best.

“I have people who are very adaptable,” Steele says. “They are all working that way and keeping an open mind. I looked for people who had all kinds of roles on their resumes. Everyone has to change at the drop of a hat.”

The production will be performed in 90 minutes with no intermission. “Because (the play has) a great forward thrust, moving forward in time, we made the decision to keep moving,” Steele says.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, acarter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.

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