“The lights are down and the curtain has closed on the most challenging season ever for the director and young actors of the Yoh Theatre Players at Woodstock Union High School and Middle School (WUHSMS). Last weekend’s three performances of ‘Orlando,’ playwright Sarah Ruhl’s stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending, period-hopping novel, was as creatively successful as it was technically demanding for the youthful Yoh cast and crew, as well as for WUHSMS drama teacher Marcia Bender.

‘Orlando,’ performed before size-limited, masked live audiences of faculty and students, family, friends, and community members, represented a return to live, indoor theater on the WUHSMS stage after two shows were presented outdoors or virtually earlier in the 2020-21 school year. Shakespeare’s comedy of betrayal and revenge, ‘The Tempest’ was performed outdoors adjacent to the high school soccer field for a small audience last fall and the contemporary music ‘The Theory of Relativity’ was recorded on videotape and presented virtually this past winter. All performances took place with cast, crew, and audience members masked and socially distanced per Vermont’s ever-evolving COVID-19 guidelines.

‘The main challenge has been in finding the connection and intimacy of theater without being able to be in close contact and without having all of the amenities of our stage available for the first part of the school year at least,’ commented Bender on the morning of ‘Orlando’s’ opening matinee performance last Friday. ‘For a lot of our students, theater is a very tight community, and so to have to adapt how we relate to one another is probably the hardest thing.’

The staging hardships were not as acute with ‘Orlando’ as they were with the earlier performances in Yoh Theatre’s pandemic-challenged season. Nonetheless, it was a challenging show to produce. Three-foot distancing, rather than six-foot spacing, made creating intimacy among the characters in the play somewhat more manageable. The ensemble nature of the production, in which all 10 of the cast members were on stage at once for most of the play, also helped, as did the creation of an impressive, mobile set-on-wheels that the actors manipulated to create scene changes on the fly. ‘The play lent itself very well to more bodily impressions,’ Bender noted. ‘I feel like the cast did a very good job of moving in ways that portrayed their characters and the really showcase the ensemble nature of the piece.’

Celia Burrington, a WUHSMS senior who has been a member of the Yoh Theatre Players since eighth grade, played the lead character in ‘Orlando’ – a 16th-century nobeleman who changes genders mid-play and becomes an immortal woman. The fantastical stage adventure takes place of 500 years, during which time Orlando, their lovers, and the chorus members explore the meaning and relevance of love and intimacy across the ages.

‘Orlando has been one of my favorite roles I’ve played throughout (my time in school),’ Burrington said before taking the stage for Saturday evening’s performance. ‘There are parts of Orlando that I connected with so strongly: questioning our existence, learning to appreciate the present moment, accepting that we may not know who we are yet. It is a bit nerve-racking being the lead role in a show, but in a strange way it doesn’t really feel like all the pressure is on me, which is what I was expecting a little,’ added Burrington. ‘The whole cast is on the stage for more or less the entire show and the chorus brings Orlando their props and moves the sets into position, so it never really feels like Orlando is alone, despite his/her frequent exclamations to the contrary.’

Allison Bradley, another WUHSMS senior who has been involved in theater since the fifth grade, played Sasha, Orlando’s principal love interest over the centuries depicted in the play. An elegant Russian woman, she meets Orlando in 16th-century England at an icy carnival on the frozen Thames River during a period known as the Great Frost. She ultimately appears to betray her English lover when it is insinuated (but not actually demonstrated) that she has cheated on him just prior to their planned elopement. Bradley spoke of the many challenges of conveying intimacy in relationships when you need to remain several feet apart and not touching one another.

‘The story documents Orlando’s various intimacies and connections with people over 500 years. He remains in love with Sasha and she sticks around in his mind and reappears at different periods in the show,’ Bradley noted. ‘Thus it was very important to convey intimacy and closeness in a distanced and masked manner. For kissing, we bowed toward each other or reached out without making actual physical contact. For my scenes as Sasha with Orlando, I explored ways of moving in closer from a distance, perhaps crawling or creeping – something that just conveyed moving closer. It was a big challenge and, of course, it doesn’t always work perfectly because nothing can beat physical touch. But we definitely did our best with it.’

Bender praised the set designer, Lilian Buchangroff, a Yoh Theatre Players alumnus and 2015 graduate of WUHS, for collaborating closely with the cast to come up with the dynamic mobile set, which was built by longtime community volunteer Fred Schlabach with assistance from the students.

‘Circling on platforms was sort of like skating together hand in hand. That’s another example of the kinds of things we did to make it feel more intimate and connected throughout the performance,’ Bender explained. Costuming by local costumer Regiland Carr; an evocative sound-scape created by Broadway-based sound designer Kate Foretek; and lighting and tech support from Bender’s husband, Scott Hepler, also contributed to the fantastical feel of the ‘Orlando’ production.

‘The time periods were reflected in the costumes and the sound effects,’ Bender commented. ‘There’s a whole series of clocks that go off when the centuries turn. And then the moveable platforms – different configurations of them would represent different centuries.’

‘Orlando’ chorus member Carolyn Leibly, Burrington, and Bradley all agreed that the experience of this pandemic year brought all the members of Yoh Theatre together even more meaningfully, even as the demands of social distancing and masking could have driven them apart.

‘I like theatre not because I’m the most talented person. I do it because it’s fun. I like the other people who do it. It’s a community thing and I think we all definitely grew closer with one another this past year,’ Leibly, a junior, commented. Bradley said the special sense of community that unites the theater world was strengthened during the pandemic. ‘I think we’ve all been strengthened a lot by dealing with COVID. Everyone talks with one another, everyone is good friends, and we had a robust group chat going for this show,’ Bradley offered. ‘It’s really relaxing to be around fellow actors. It’s a really tight group. Because the cast of “Orlando” was primarily limited to juniors and seniors, people who’ve been in the Yoh program a long time, we had even more time to develop that camaraderie.’

Burrington concurred as well. ‘ ‘Orlando’ has undoubtedly deepened my connection with the rest of my fellow cast members,’ she stated. ‘Participating in theater has practically been my lifeline during this time when school still doesn’t allow for very much time to socialize or connect with people. Being part of a group that, by nature of the activity, supports one another so unconditionally, is amazing. I’m so grateful to have this group of people I can connect with so easily, despite all the changes in our lives and in the world,’ the ‘Orlando’ star added.

Given an opportunity to express what being active in theater in the Woodstock schools has meant for her these past several years, high school senior Bradley responded candidly. ‘It has made all the difference in my personality and how I relate to my classmates and other people,’ she said warmly. ‘I remember in eighth grade I was just exorbitantly introverted, but theater over the years has given me new and creative ways to present myself. I remember being super scared to talk to some of the older kids when I first joined Yoh as an eight grader and freshman.

‘Now I’ve been able to grow into the role of being the older kid and understanding how some of the newer players are feeling. I can reach out an help them feel more integrated into the group than perhaps I felt when I was their age. I just love everything that theater has offered to me.’”