What makes a woman interesting?♦
That is the question
It’s no surprise that the Wilma Theater, currently premiering Age of Arousal by the young Canadian Linda Griffiths, is the same company that’s known for its connection with Tom Stoppard. There are similarities.
Both Griffiths and Stoppard take us to other times to illuminate the social changes of those eras. Both tell their stories through the highly verbal interaction of individuals whose lives intersect the great issues of their time.
Griffiths makes good use of some tricks of her own, such as overlapping dialogue and talking to oneself in the middle of a scene. Mini soliloquies, you might call them. But rather than ask themselves whether to be or not to be, Griffiths’s characters are more likely to interrupt a conversation by saying: "I’ve got a huge boner." The subject of Age of Arousal is sexuality, to be sure.
It’s the Victorian Era and we are in England. Agitation for women’s suffrage is accompanied by a flowering of sexual freedom and by the entrance of women into formerly male jobs. Free love and lesbian attachments are becoming more common. Readers may note that the playwright is female and lesbians are involved and jump to the erroneous conclusion that this play is a proselytizing tract. Not so. One of Age of Arousal’s strengths is that it does not advocate any one position but, rather, shows the misgivings and fears that each woman feels about her choices. And those choices take them in different directions. The play’s five women range in age from 21 to 60 and are at different places in the spectrum.
The cast contains just one male character, with whom many of us will empathize. Everard Barfoot (Eric Martin Brown) is relatively liberated, enticed by the New, trying to understand, and feels that he really wants a woman to be his equal partner– up to a point.
Savor the conversations
Be forewarned, there’s no rush of events or action scenes. Instead, one needs to savor the conversations between and among these characters.
You can’t miss the parallel between our time, when e-mail and IM displace letter writing, and the play’s Victorian era, when typewriters destroyed the custom of hand-written communication. The protagonists perceive Remington typewriters as the weapon that will allow women to breach the gender barrier in the workplace, where women will replace men as secretaries and, eventually, as executives. But one of them complains about the loss of the beauty of personal handwriting.
Contradictions make Age of Arousal interesting. The female owner of a secretarial school thinks she’s training women for liberation, but her assistant observes that the students who owe money for tuition and rooms are indentured, almost like white slaves. A proud spinster breaks down and confesses that she’d like to service a husband, manage a home and chance death by childbirth.
Instead of nudity, wardrobes
The play is very sexual, but with no nudity whatsoever. To the contrary, the characters display gorgeous wardrobes, and not just the ladies. Everard sports quite a wardrobe of waistcoats and brocaded vests as well.
Blanka Zizka’s staging is striking, as it transcends what’s called for in the script. Cued by the idea that a new age is flowering, and by lines such as, "Your boudoir is a garden of delights,” the Wilma production blooms with floral designs. Particularly effective are the opening scene, a garden scene in the second act, and the opening of Act Two, when the characters attend a gallery show of Impressionist art. This scene draws similarities between the art and the women’s movement: tortured nature, a world torn asunder, emancipation from rigid structures. The floral motif is executed by Matthew Saunders (sets) and Jorge Cousineau with Matthew Saunders (video design.)
The cast is excellent, especially Mary Martello as the 60-year-old charismatic, egocentric, voluptuous owner of the secretarial school, and Larisa Polonsky as the provocative, confused Monica, half lady and half slut.
To read another review by Jim Rutter, click here.
To read another review by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
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