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A CurtainUp Review
Age of Arousal

Why do I find his condescension so arousing? .—Rhoda Nunn
Age of Arousal
Krista Hoeppner (L) and Mary Martello (R)
(Photo: Jim Roese)
The US premiere of Age of Arousal is in limited engagement at the Wilma. Directed by Blanka Zizka, this is another in the Wilma's growing Canadian canon. In her play, more or less based on George Gissing's novel, Odd Women published in Britain in 1893, Linda Griffiths writes about her "philosophical ancestors," the women in the suffrage movement. Griffiths' writing has much appeal and I wish I could say the play is successful.

Promotional materials proclaim, "Dare to enter the boldly uncensored world of loosened corsets as five Victorian women pursue a new age where erotic and economic freedom reign supreme." The reality is that although this is no stiff period drama, the bodice ripping is strictly linguistic. They talk big but the vitality of the writing cannot compensate for the scarcity of action.

The "icy breath of change" is in the air in late Victorian England. With an oversupply of women there are not enough breadwinning husbands to go around, so there's a critical need for women to be able to support themselves. The play begins with the retelling of a dream about force-feeding in a radical Suffragette's past. Historical fill-in for the audience follows here and throughout the work. In fact Griffiths picks up and carries forth a neglected and outdated Shavian polemical banner. If this were a film we could throw out the first reel and pick up the story running. Later, excess political mouthing could be dropped, replaced by dramatic action. Reminds me of Elmore Leonard's advice on how to approach writing: "Skip the boring parts."

There is crackling dialog here, however, and well delineated characters to flesh out this puzzle of women's stances and situations. Mary Barfoot (Mary Martello) lives and works with her lover and protégé Rhoda Nunn (Krista Hoeppner) in a relationship polite society would have regarded as quite sordid. Concerned for women's economic security, they run a skills school for women.

When an actor takes to writing plays, there are often juicy roles to be had. Mary Martello absolutely breathes the textured role of Barfoot, the school director and women's freedom fighter whose weapon of choice is the Remington typewriter. Hoeppner's beautifully clean acting as Rhoda is bracing. At one point, in an extremity, Rhoda accepts a man's handkerchief. She laments the "horrible banality" of the act, while he admires her "glow of intelligent unhappiness."

Three sisters whose father has died (a very bad thing for a father of girls to do in the late nineteenth century), are nearly impoverished despite a modest inheritance. They become students in Barfoot's forward thinking women's school which features typing on "machines for the future."

"When I look at them I feel I'm disappearing into thin air," says Virginia the loopy sister (Roxanne Wellington). Virginia longs to take the night train to Berlin where she can smoke and wear pants. "They (typewriters) seem rather ferocious", remarks Alice (Monique Fowler) the quintessential old maid, who later will find them exhilarating. Fowler gets the lioness's share of funny lines and works them. These women, including the pretty younger sister, Monica (Larisa Polonsky), are on board, ready to learn to lead useful independent lives.

Enter Everard Barfoot, cousin of the school's director, well played by Eric Martin Brown. Not the stereotyped uncomprehending and stuffy male, but rather someone intriguingly contradictory, Everard wants to embrace his age, "the machines, and the women." He takes the women's movement seriously while enjoying secret casual liaisons. Later, desperately in love with a steadfast Odd Woman and wanting to marry her, he solicits her complicity in undermining her commitment to the cause, forcing her to confront the strength of her resolve.

Characters evolve as they make discoveries about themselves. A take-charge person learns to compromise in order to keep what's important, and someone must decide what she stands for. One woman undergoes a complete metamorphosis as another comes into her own.

A hallmark of the work is Griffiths' remarkable way of representing communication between and within characters almost simultaneously, switching between discourse and self-talk in a continual flow. Secret anxieties that ride just beneath the surface of social intercourse keep bubbling up like verbal thermal springs, producing dialog laced with normally unexpressed thoughts about sensations, reactions, motivations, and desires. Hopes for women's financial autonomy join with a longing for sexual fulfillment. The juxtapositions are revealing and socially unacceptable in delightful ways. But with a script loaded with self consciously clever delicacies, without sufficient meaningful activity to offset the language, the effect becomes something akin to being force-fed marzipan.

The subtextual outpourings, like asides on steroids, follow the customary conceit that characters can't hear them, but the audience can. Although spoken at normal volume the emotional spill-outs are often delivered fast, and much is not caught by the audience. On opening night, the laughs of those who heard were accompanied by the generalized sotto voce buzz of "What did she say?" In the fourth row, I missed maybe 20% of Griffiths' subversive words. After the show a few people mentioned that from seats farther back they often got only the drift of what was being said.

Things veer briefly into action in an almost gratuitous but very theatrical scene in which the women take turns feigning fainting, that most Victorian of female activities. Like a breath of freewheeling air, it is most welcome in this largely cerebral experience. And a dramatically arranged and well lighted scene at an exhibition of Impressionists is notable in that each character describes the paintings in terms of something telling about him or her self.

As the play nears its close, it begins to achieve impressive depth. There's a fleeting grandeur about the two principal Odd Women as they speak to each other instead of thinking pivotal issues aloud. This scene is followed by a near lyrical moment of understanding between two some-time antagonists. The brief but promising intensity dissolves, however, as the play surfaces to return to exposition at the end.

The set features imaginative staging of three antique Remington typewriters on a platform that moves in and out. The production is enhanced by Russell H. Champa's lighting design and the quirky, just-right work of sound designer and composer Troy Herion. Matthew Saunders and Jorge Cousineau handle scene titles and occasional pictures with projections, which have become practically de rigeur on stage these days. The Janus Stefanowicz costumes are evocative creations that come from somewhere between Victoriana and fantasy.

The Wilma stage is so large it can be a liability, and Zizka and set designer Matthew Saunders have come up with ingenious and unexpected ways to reduce the distance traveled for entrances and exits. Unfortunately fluidity and pace are not affected as much as they might have been, due to the repeated stolid, stationary posting of characters, often in the dread sort of semi circle facing front as if waiting for lines or something to do.

Tennessee Willliams wrote, " [T]he structural pattern in motion, the quick interplay of live beings, suspended like fitful lightning in a cloud, these things are the play, not words on paper nor thoughts and ideas of an author." Despite the efforts of director and actors, and the contributions of the creative team, the play needs to breathe. More literary than dramatic, Griffiths' agile writing, with its alternate boldness and nuance, evidences a love of language worthy of a poet. The play would make a good read but it needs more fitful lightning for the stage.

Age of Arousal
by Linda Griffiths
Directed by Blanka Zizka

Cast: Mary Martello, Krista Hoeppner, Roxanne Wellington, Monique Fowler, Larisa Polonsky, Eric Martin Brown
Set Design: Matthew Saunders
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Costume Design: Janus Stefanowicz
Sound Design and Composer: Troy Herion
Running time: 2 hours and 25 mins including one 15 min intermission 12/05/07- 01/06/08 Opening 12/12
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 12/12 performance.
Wilma Theater, Avenue of the Arts


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