PARIS — When gender starts to feel like a battleground, there’s comfort in going back to Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, “Orlando.” The book’s central sex change — midway, a young nobleman seamlessly becomes a “she” — is a playful event, full of fantastical possibilities. It’s easy to see why artists like the British director Katie Mitchell are turning to it again for inspiration, but the text’s leaps of imagination aren’t easily replicated onstage.
In a recent interview with The Financial Times, Ms. Mitchell called Woolf’s parody of a biography, inspired by her intimate relationship with the author and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West, an “unstageable monster.” Undeterred, she staged it at the Schaubühne in Berlin, with Alice Birch as her co-adapter. After its September premiere, their “Orlando” traveled to Paris for guest performances at the Théâtre de l’Odéon. There, it proved the director right: While Ms. Mitchell has poured impressive craft and experience into her reimagining, it is consistently one step behind Woolf’s mercurial prose.
Ms. Mitchell applies to “Orlando” the live filming technique she has been honing for over a decade. The actors move around the stage with cameramen and wardrobe and makeup artists, recording scenes that are shown live on a large screen. Prerecorded footage is inserted as needed, while a narrator ties the story together.
Onstage filming has become so commonplace that it’s easy to take its complexity for granted, and Orlando’s time-traveling adventures and long list of characters up the ante further. The eight actors from the Schaubühne company play dozens of roles; the costume and set changes are minutely choreographed and, at times, frenetic, as a grand reception room gives way to an airplane cabin, Constantinople or a 21st-century interior, since Ms. Mitchell brings the end point of “Orlando” from 1929 to the present.
There is no denying the sheer virtuosity of the result, but the cast spend much of “Orlando” galloping from one set to the next, leaving the characters little room to breathe and project a sense of atmosphere.
Similarly, the technical constraints appear at times to limit Ms. Mitchell to a literal reading of a highly metaphorical work. “It is like being alone in a dark room with a treasure chest full of rubies and nuggets and brocades,” Sackville-West marveled in a letter to Woolf after reading the novel; this version lacks that sense of giddy extravagance. When Orlando writes poetry, we merely see the character pen in hand. When the text mentions birds and trees, prerecorded birds and trees dutifully appear onscreen.
I was left wishing Ms. Mitchell had broken her rules as regularly as Woolf does, because her “Orlando” delights when it embraces the witty absurdity of some scenes. The queen who falls in love with Orlando early on appears wearing a ruff and an elaborate hairdo — but she is topless, as the camera shortly reveals. When Orlando becomes a woman, Jenny König, who plays the role, dons a green dress with oversize side hoops that force her to navigate the sets sideways — a situation both farcical and visually revealing, showing Orlando’s frustration with the new restrictions she faces as a woman.
As both the male and female Orlandos, Ms. König proves beautifully artless, keeping the sex change low-key. In that sense, she embodies Woolf’s presciently fluid character, invented long before gender fluidity reached the mainstream. Throughout, including in “Fleabag”-style, wide-eyed asides to the camera, Ms. König cuts through the technical wizardry to get to the fantasy.
If confirmation was needed that Woolf’s works often resist adaptation, a new French production of “The Waves” sank without a trace at the Théâtre de Belleville in September. Its young director, Georgia Azoulay, attempted to craft coherent story lines out of Woolf’s allusive, stream-of-consciousness novel. It’s a tall order, and although Ms. Azoulay picked a simple setting, with just a table and a few chairs, she directed her actors to overwrought extremes.
Drinks were thrown in people’s faces, and the characters veered between hysterical antics and ominous pauses, as if “The Waves” were a soap opera. Ms. Mitchell started her journey with Woolf by adapting “The Waves” in 2006; let’s hope this young cast can write off their version as an early-career experiment and move on to the next step.
Elsewhere, “Orlando”-style gender fluidity is seeping into the French theater scene. The country has been slower to adopt gender-swapping in classic plays than has Britain or the United States, but even its most venerable company, the Comédie-Française, is now experimenting with it. In a new production of Shakespeare’s male-dominated “Julius Caesar,” at the smaller Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, Rodolphe Dana has allotted over half of the main roles to women.
That turns out to be the production’s one inspired move. As in Ms. Mitchell’s “Orlando,” Mr. Dana doesn’t strive for realism where cross-dressing is involved. The names and pronouns of the male characters remain the same, and the women aren’t required to drag up. Actors of both genders wear nondescript black suits, with the exception of Martine Chevallier, who plays Caesar in an embroidered tunic.
Ms. Chevallier, one of the Comédie-Française’s most experienced performers, is a natural leader at this point in her career, and directs the proceedings with more authority when she is onstage than Mr. Dana does elsewhere. The performance might as well end with her slow, masterfully understated death scene — by a thousand silent cuts, as actor after actor smears red paint over her costume. Unhappily, though the play has been heavily truncated to accommodate a cast of just 10, there is another hour to go before the curtain falls.
Georgia Scalliet at least provides a sense of Mark Antony’s inner conflict after the death of his protector, but Nâzim Boudjenah, as Brutus, is undone by the lack of tension. The traverse stage is oddly empty throughout: The design budget must have been sacrificed for the often lavish productions performed in the bigger Salle Richelieu, the Comédie-Française’s main stage.
“Julius Caesar” isn’t the strongest offering in the Comédie-Française’s repertoire this season, but it is stimulating. It opens up horizons that the company’s women are ready for, and shifts traditional depictions of power. In that sense, gender fluidity does what theater has always done best: exercise the imagination.
Orlando. Directed by Katie Mitchell. In repertoire at the Schaubühne, Berlin.
Les Vagues. Directed by Georgia Azoulay. Théâtre de Belleville.
Jules César. Directed by Rodolphe Dana. Comédie-Française, through Nov. 3.