Sexuality is turned up full throttle in The Centaur’s lavish production of Age of Arousal, a stylish, often outrageous and sometimes tedious take on how women relate to one another, and how a man can poison that relationship. Linda Griffith’s feminist play about a group of sexually repressed “new age” women in Victorian London, is inspired by George Gissing’s The Odd Woman, the 19th century novel which deals with the fate of emancipated women in a male-dominated society. Reminiscent of plays by British dramatist, Caryl Churchill, Age of Arousal relies on a theatrical device Griffith’s has dubbed ”thought speak.” Characters deliver lines in which they say one thing and mean another, and the subtext is underscored by an abrupt change in lighting. Clever at first, the idea eventually becomes as distracting not unlike being bounced around in a verbal pin-ball machine.
The year is 1885, and the typewriter has just been invented. Mary Barfoot (Clare Coulter) and Rhoda Nunn (Alison Darcy) are lesbian lovers who run a secretarial school. They’re on a mission to help women become self-sufficient by learning to type. They take into their sisterly fraternity the three down-and- out Madden siblings, all of them genteel spinsters - Alice, (Diana Fajrajsl), Monica (Gemma-James Smith) and Virgina, (Leni Parker). The five women, dressed in garishly sumptuous costumes, buzz around the sliding panels of Michael Eagan’s magnificent set, which is really the star of the show. The plot starts turning when Mary’s philandering cousin, Dr. Everard Barfoot, (Julian Casey) seduces both Monica and Rhoda.
The production is anchored by Coulter and James-Smith, who originated their full-bodied roles two years ago in Toronto’s Factory Theatre production. Coulter is perhaps too regal to be believanle as a street-smart rabble-rouser.The entire cast, however, deliver stand-out performances, especially Gemma James Smith, caught between her loyalty to her sisters and to her lover, who she to “lick fine wine off my belly;” Diana Frajajsl , the menopausal Alice, who wants “To service a husband, whisper with women about my genitals, and burn and sweat through the change of life in quiet seclusion;” and Leni Parker the mannish lush, Virginia, who escapes to Berlin to “smoke cigarettes and wear trousers.” Casey holds his own as the lone male character in the cast of man killers. As he so aptly puts it: “Men aren’t afraid of women,” he observes ruefully. “only of women in groups.”
The music is glorious, and some of the scenes are small gems, especially the one at a modern art exhibition which melds the womens’ lack of self-esteem with growing confidence and awareness. The second act, however, features an overly similar progression of comic riffs that are meant to draw parallels between the old and new feminist worlds, and break no new ground in the endless war between the sexes. There would perhaps be more laughs if director Sarah Garton Stanley had paid more attention to the rhythm of the script. Age of Arousal runs at the Centaur until April 19.