Mar. 13, 2013 - Issue #908: In Your Face
Age of Arousal
Human sexuality is a moving target. That's a glib way to put it, certainly, but it's nevertheless a persistent idea running through Linda Griffiths' Age of Arousal.
So, too, is feminist discourse a slippery slope, and we certainly hear a lot of it over the course of the play, Edmonton's current production of which is, significantly, a partnership between women-oriented The Maggie Tree and male-led Blarney Productions.
Age of Arousal begins with a bloodcurdling scream issued by Mary Barfoot (played by the excellent Sandra Nicholls), an ex-suffragette who runs a secretarial school for "odd" women—those who will never be paired with a man, thanks to the hugely unbalanced population of 1885 London, when there was nearly half a million more women than men. Mary's business partner and lover, Rhoda (Kristi Hansen), sets the story in motion by taking pity on a destitute friend and her sisters by offering them places in the school.
The play's setting is a peculiar moment in history that marked the rise of "the new woman," a significant shift in women's societal roles that, as the audience witnesses, was alternately regarded as a curse or a blessing depending on who you asked. While some of the discourse, and certainly most of the period's immediate steps towards women's equality are, of course, outdated (learning to type and becoming secretaries as their major goals towards liberation, for example), it's fascinating to see that the basic impetus behind these actions still resonates strongly with a 21st-century audience.
Griffiths' rich script dances between heavy-handed feminist rhetoric and clever, deliberate undermining of said rhetoric; it's also quite hilarious, largely owing to a wonderful device coined "thoughtspeak" by the playwright, in which characters jump from their external conversation with another person to an internal monologue about their true thoughts and emotions. No small amount of dramatic irony is created by this machination, and the actors all do a wonderful job keeping the different lines of dialogue clear and separate—not to mention maintaining a straight face whilst on a particularly bawdy streak.
Lest you think it's all raunchy double entendres and frivolous banter, however, know that the second act delivers a veritable blitz of bombs dropped in succession, as all the big issues come bubbling to a head. Six months pass between the first and second acts, which seems initially jarring after returning from intermission and seeing several characters suddenly behaving very differently. While this is certainly a sign of their dynamism, not everyone will appreciate or accept these changes—depending on your personal convictions, you might even take offense to some of them. The changes in Rhoda's character present some particularly troubling implications for both feminism and queer politics.
Though set in a specific historical time period, Age of Arousal isn't really a period piece—or at least, it certainly doesn't look like one. The costumes are slick, stylish mash-ups of contemporary and period clothing, as well as feminine and masculine styles: a boyish tie and button-down shirt underneath a leather corset, for example. It's details like these, along with the script's contradictory politics and frustrating character turns, and especially the excellent performances by the entire cast, that make this production highly provocative—in all connotations of the word.
Until Sun, Mar 17 (7:30 pm; Sunday matinee at 1:30pm)
Directed by Wayne Paquette
C103, $20 – $25
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