TAMPA — Ever wonder who gets one of those so-called genius grants? Their resumes must boast more than stints selling lava lamps in the mall.
Here's one: Before winning her prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, playwright Sarah Ruhl created a stage adaptation of a classic Virginia Woolf novel, an influential, feminist discussion of gender equity that's also super funny, evenly-paced and warm.
No big deal.
Jobsite Theater's new production of Ruhl's take on Woolf's Orlando is a real delight. It teased out intrigued smiles from the audience in the Shimberg Playhouse of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, managing to convey both a lightness and a weight that felt seamless.
Ruhl's script is in a storytelling style that draws from Woolf's semi-autobiographical novel. The rhythm just takes a second to grasp thanks to smart direction from Giles Davies.
In this production, five women play all characters. The casting of Emily Belvo, Jonelle M. Meyer, Ami Sallee and Nicole Jeannine Smith is well-balanced. They all have smart comic instincts, and no one is selfish on stage.
And then there's Katrina Stevenson, who fearlessly embodies Woolf's title character, Orlando. In the first act, the 16-year-old nobleman and wannabe poet is doing boy stuff. He has a romantic dalliance with the queen, falls in love with a Russian ice skater and generally has the shapeliest legs anyone has seen on a guy.
Right before intermission, though, Orlando falls asleep and wakes up a woman, which we know because Stevenson bares her enviable assets behind a lit sheet (go, girl).
The second act is when the heavy questions come, and obviously Woolf would also be up for a genius grant for dreaming up this concept. Orlando is ageless, living through to the 20th century. She feels the same inside, even though "the spirit of the age" expects her to act differently.
As a woman, she loves being pampered but hates getting ready. She feels an inexplicable marriage obsession that she can't ignore. She still just wants love.
Is it possible you can be clumsy, spoiled, snobby, love nature, love men, love women no matter the body? Is it possible no one is as simple as their gender? Orlando asks the big ones, all on a simple yet clever set by Brian Smallheer.
A note about these important existential questions. It was harder to ponder them effectively on opening night with the wedding going on upstairs from the Shimberg. While everyone loves to jam out to Flo Rida, the noise bleed was not great for Orlando. The fine actors on stage never flinched.
Surely the Straz is eager to rent spaces. But either some good soundproofing needs to happen, or scheduling needs to be made with more respect to the artistic integrity of the material, and the paying guests all around.
Contact Stephanie Hayes at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.