The "Orlando" cast, clockwise from left, Stephanie Farnum, Rob Grayson, Erika Leachman, Morgan Altenhoff and Tess Plant-Thomas
The “Orlando” cast, clockwise from left, Stephanie Farnum, Rob Grayson, Erika Leachman, Morgan Altenhoff and Tess Plant-Thomas

When Virginia Woolf published her gender-bending, time-traveling novel “Orlando” in 1928, her contemporaries initially put it down as frivolous, a distraction from the more serious work she was writing. And so it seemed doomed for decades to not be considered alongside novels like “To the Lighthouse.” That is until Sally Potter’s 1992 film version with Tilda Swinton revealed the story to be much more than fluff. “Orlando,” in a sparkling new adaptation by playwright Sarah Ruhl, continues the ascension of this work, and it closes Elements Theater Collective’s current season, starting tonight and playing in pop-up in several locations.

“This season our theme has been gender and sexuality,” says director Mary Plant-Thomas, who is marking this production as her last before she moves to San Francisco. “So it was a very explicit choice … But I also see that the play shares other core ideas with our plays, like time travel. I think that’s less a choice and more that we really value choosing new works that are also accessible.”

At left, Orlando (Ms. Thomas) and Sasha (Ms.Altenhof
At left, Orlando (Ms. Thomas) and Sasha (Ms.Altenhof

“Orlando” starts in the 16th century with its title character as a man, but in a deep sleep he jumps two centuries and wakes up a woman. Both genders and societies have their problems and Orlando must navigate them, chasing after lovers and fending off suitors (who have some gender switcheroos going on as well.)

Ms. Ruhl’s adaptation premiered in New York in 2010, but the play wasn’t available at the time. When it only recently became available, Ms. Plant-Thomas jumped at it.

“I’ve loved the book since the first year of college,” Ms. Plant-Thomas says. “But there was another play version of the novel, and I didn’t like it. It didn’t bring out what was special about the novel. It didn’t ring true. But Ruhl’s version not only stays true to Virginia Woolf’s style, but it also works as a play … A lot of the lines are taken straight from the novel.”

Ms. Plant-Thomas cast her younger sister Tess in the lead. Their work together stretches back to when they were kids and they put on shows like “The Mousetrap” in their cul-de-sac for whoever passed by. By 10th grade Mary was directing them both in their production of “Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” By her 23rd year, their amateur company had lasted 13 years.

“She’s pretty good at working under my direction since we’ve been doing it since we were little,” Ms. Plant-Thomas says. “For this, she’s been coming to the table with a lot of improv experience.” (Tess is part of a San Diego improv troupe.)

“It’s been helpful in the rehearsal process, because Woolf and Ruhl leave a lot open to interpretation. The whole cast has been great with that.”

The cast is completed with Morgan Altenhoff (a recent UCSB grad) as Sasha, Rob Grayson (Elements executive director), Stephanie Farnum (who was in Elements’ “Or”), and Erika Leachman as the Chorus. The cast members also play plenty of other characters too.

“The conceived ‘frivolity’ of the novel has been guiding me,” says Ms. Plant-Thomas. “The tone of the play is not too frivolous. The heart and the soul of the book is saying many things. But you don’t want to get too serious. Don’t take the time period seriously. Don’t overthink things. It’s about telling the story, finding the joy in it and being humorous.”

When: 8 p.m. July 11-13, 18-20, 24-26; 7 p.m. July 17; 2 p.m. July 27
Where: Opening night: Java Station, 4447 Hollister Ave.
(See website for other locations)
Cost: Free, but reserve seats online
Information: (805) 232-4382, or elementstc.org

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