by Lynn on April 21, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

A combination of on-line and in-person Virtual Reality presentation by Talk is Free Theatre, Five Points Theatre, Barrie, Ont. plays until April 23, 2022.

Written by Sarah Ruhl

Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf

Created by Merlin Simard and Raven John

Directed by Rinchen Dolma

Movement director, Sze-Yang Ade-Lam

VR Facilitator and Cinematographer, Nicole Eun-Ju Bell

Sound design by Marcello Ovidio

Virtual World Builder, Raven John

Video editor, Dustin Krysztofiak

Stage Manager, Anastasiya Popova

Performed by Merlin Simard

The Story. Orlando is based on Virginia Woolf’s celebrated 1928 novel about a young nobleman, born during the reign of Elizabeth I who at 30 begins living as a woman, and continues as such for the next 300 years. The novel has been described as a satire of English Literature as Orlando meets the greats of English literary history. Over time the novel has been considered a feminist classic, but in our ever-changing world of gender fluidity the novel speaks to that more profoundly as envisioned by Merlin Simard (they/she—whose biography describes them as “a queer, trans-feminine performer, playwright, dramaturge and filmmaker).

The Production. The audience engages with the production initially by watching Act I on their devices at home, in preparation for the second part that takes place in the Five Points Theatre, in Barrie, Ont.

Act I is presented as what might be described as an animated video. The vibrant-coloured presentation follows Orlando as a man in the court of Queen Elizabeth I and how their relationship became close. Orlando falls in love with Sasha, a Russian noblewoman and the various ‘adventures’ that involves. Act I concludes with Orlando becoming a woman at the age of 30. Orlando is ‘played-voiced’ by Merlin Simard.

For Act II, the small audience gathers inside the Five Points Theatre. Seven or eight chairs are arranged in a circle, each chair illuminated with a soft cone of light. Each member of the audience sits in one of the chairs and is fitted with disinfected Virtual Reality headgear that fits snugly over the head, eyes and rests on the nose. When we put on the headgear we are put into the Virtual Reality world of Orlando and the other characters that we initially saw in Act I at home. We are also given two ‘joy’sticks—one for the right hand and one for the left hand. We are instructed in how to hold the sticks. There is a clicker for the index finger, a button for each thumb that moves the images closer or father away. I found that interesting. When I move the button towards me, the image in the head gear moves away. When I move the button away from me, the image moves towards me. Another button gives us a total view around the view we are looking at. There is a button that will enter us into a different portal when we point and click an image that appears. I believe there is a button on the joy stick that does absolutely nothing, but I could be mistaken.

We are told that if we need help we can put up a hand and someone will come immediately. Or we can take off the head gear and watch a screen that shows what we are watching in the head gear etc. I mention Anastasiya Popova as the Stage Manager in the credits because she and Nicole Eun-Ju Bell do wonderful work in caring for the audience. They make sure we feel safe, secure, guided, helped and accommodated with this new world of Virtual Reality.

Of course there are those in my small group who know how to navigate this world with ease. The gentleman next to me managed to ‘break’ into the internet and navigate that. I also thought he had managed to navigate ‘my’ characters by moving them all over the view. Maybe I’m imagining that. He seemed very adept.

When the ‘performance’ begins, the image of Orlando appears in our head-gear. This time Orlando is a woman in a white dress—is it a wedding dress? Not sure. The images are a swirl. I click the joystick, click the bottoms and when it’s time to click through a portal, I’m stumped. Anastasiya is right there to calmly assure me she will get me on track. Sometimes even before I know I’m in trouble she can tell and is right there to help. At one point I click on the button to get me into another portal and nothing happens. It’s at that point I take off the head-gear and watch the large screen that will have a ‘two-dimensional’ vision of what we are watching on our head-gear.

And for a bonus, there in a chair outside the circle is Merlin Simard as Orlando, with her own head-gear and joy sticks, wearing a white dress (a wedding dress?) and thick, black Doc Martin-type boots. She narrates the complex story of how Orlando navigates the world and the centuries. I also note that Simard shakes her hands often and raises them above her head. This then translates into Orlando’s expressive hands punctuating the story with motion. Love that.

I’ve seen three shows in Virtual Reality: Draw Me Close by Jordan Tannahill about his relationship with his mother, The Library at Night created by Robert Lepage about 10 great libraries in history and Orlando created by Merlin Simard and Raven John.

In Draw Mr Close the audience was invited to engage with the Virtual Reality of the world by moving around the space, opening a ‘virtual reality’ window, siting on a ‘virtual reality’ bed and then seeing how that whole world worked outside the performance space.

In The Library at Night all one needed to do was gasp in wonder at the cleverness and creativity of Robert Lepage’s images and imagination, and hope the head-gear worked.

In Orlandothe audience is invited to participate even more, by clicking buttons that enter worlds, moving characters closer etc. and engaging in that world. As in all three cases, I am astonished at the artistry of the endeavor.

Certainly in the case of Orlando Raven John as the Virtual World Builder, has created a vibrant coloured world of Orlando and his/her/their adventures through history and their lives. Images, visions, vistas and experiences have one shaking one’s head in amazement at the artistry of the creation.  Co-creators, Merlin Simard and Raven John have re-invented Virginia Woolf’s story to embrace, expand and dive deeper into the world of gender fluidity. Fascinating.

Talk is Free Theatre presents:

Plays until April 23, 2022.

Running time: Act I at home is 42 minutes. Act II at the Five Points Theatre is 1 hour.

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