Manbites Dog Theater, Durham
Through Jan. 28

In her novel Orlando: A Biography, Virginia Woolf observed that it takes some time to write a decent poem: say, five hundred years. To find a true soul mate? Four centuries, not including the necessary intervals of doubt and self-recrimination. And if you’re trying to genuinely see yourself and othersfree of an ancient wardrobe of restrictive clothes and their attendant inflexible gender roleswell, the struggle continues on that one.

But it takes a mere eighty minutes to gain these and other insights in the Delta Boys’ triumphant production of Sarah Ruhl’s stage adaptation of Orlando at Manbites Dog Theater. In that time, five self-directed actors sketch striking stage tableaux as they deftly skate across a half-millennium-long history of the human heart.

Elsa Hoffman’s intricate set silhouettes and imaginative costume pieces, etched in rusted metal and tin, are equally striking. And Joseph Amodei’s dramatic lighting and Kim Black’s clever costumes fully serve a rewarding production filled with the joy of storytelling.

In her 1928 novel, Woolf took a decidedly long view of the advancements in human affairs. A thinly veiled tribute to her paramour, Vita Sackville-West, it tracks the unusually long-lived title character, as well as British culture from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, as Orlando gains an increasing measure of interpersonal insight and maturity, “losing some illusions, perhaps to acquire others.”

Emily Anderson’s forthright portrayal of Orlando embraces and discards various conventions of court and empire as well as their analogues in our relationships. As a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I (played drolly by Rajeev Rajendran), Orlando experiences a poetic cross-wiring of the sensesand the sharp betrayal of first lovein pursuit of the enigmatic Russian princess Sasha (Skylar Gudasz). He flees Europe to avoid the loveless lust of Caitlin Wells’s absurd Romanian archduchess and spends the Romantic era cultivating admirersbut no true friends or lovesin Constantinople.

Orlando’s subsequent transformation in gender allows her to view relationships from both sides of the gender binary and, possibly, to transcend it altogether. “She knew the secrets and shared the weaknesses of each,” the text’s chorus observes at one point. “Now a thousand mysteries became plain to her.”

Still, the spirits of the differing times obscure as much as they reveal. Orlando chafes at women’s dependency in the nineteenth century before the acceleration of the twentieth fundamentally challenges her sense of self. Through these ages, Orlando tries to assess her relationships as she “fling[s] a net of words after the wild goose of meaning.” Woolf sounds an autobiographical note as cycles of depression make Orlando question the validity of her time with her soul mate, Marmaduke (a canny Dale Wolf).

Still, at the last, Orlando remains confident in her search for understanding. An equally confident production puts that quest on the strongest ground, and earns our highest recommendation.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Gender’s Game.”