Sexier than a bare ankle

Sexier than a bare ankle

Theatre Projects Manitoba’s production of Age of Arousal explores Victorian-era sexuality – but don’t expect a stuffy historical drama

Barb Stewart – Uptown

What if your innermost thoughts suddenly came popping out of your mouth?  You would probably be so horrified you would never leave the house – or open your mouth – again.  Thankfuly, the characters in Linda Griffiths’ play Age of Arousal, which makes its Winnipeg debut at Theatre projects Manitoba this week, suffer this fate, but still come out for the entire world to see.

In their defense, only the audience is privy to these outbursts, so the characters are spared the indignity and embarrassment of others confronting them about it. Those offstage bear witness, making the work an intriguing combination of fantasy and reality not often seen on Winnipeg stages.

“I feel like we don’t see this kind of work in Manitoba,” says the play’s director, TPM artistic director Ardith Boxall. “It’s a very modern Canadian play combined with really rich, heightened language. Her work has a real sense of the fantastic. Her scenes are personal/political, but she feeds them through the eye of a needle. That’s the fabulous sort of fantastical element.”

Griffiths calls the process of her characters’ outbursts “thought speak” and as intriguing as it sounds for an audience, it is equally as thrilling and demanding for the Theatre Projects cast (Eric Blais, Carolyn Gray, Krista Jackson, Patricia Hunter, Erin McGrath and Maggie Nagle) and director. Whether the device takes the form of one person’s breathy aside or a group of characters joining together in an almost aria of hidden thoughts, the piece takes a great amount of choreographing and structure to maintain.

“It’s essentially the interior voice of the character, it just comes spilling out and we have to stage things in such a way that it makes sense, that we know the other characters onstage aren’t hearing it. It’s very technical and it’s very challenging. It’s basically like patting your head and rubbing your stomach,” laughs Boxall.

What makes this all even more fascinating is that Age of Arousal is set in Victorian England, a time and place rife with repression and, one could conclude, plenty of innermost thoughts to be hidden away, or not, as the case may be.

Griffiths’ work is “wildly inspired” by George Gissings’ 1893 novel The Odd Women. A pioneering work of feminism, even if written by a man, Griffiths uses the same characters as the novel, but has the luxury of the 21st century’s more relaxed moral code to play with. The story involves Mary Barfoot and her lover, Miss Nunn, who run a secretarial school for women who need to find their own way in the world (i.e., are unmarried). When the Madden sisters arrive at the school, followed soon after by the dashing Everard, all hell breaks lose.

Even though the play is set in the Victorian era, it is anything but a dry historical drama. The piece is decidedly up-to-date, making it a fresh and exciting work for a modern audience.

“It’s a very modern play,” Boxall says. “It’s not a look back in time, it’s a cry to race towards the present. There are very many visual and oral clues in the play that this is not real, this is not a historical reenactment. They are not dry historical figures. And one of the biggest ways that happens is that these characters are dealing with what is never dealt with in the Victorian-period: sexuality. Everyone in this play is thinking about sex all the time.”

Theatre Projects Manitoba
March 19-29, Rachel Browne Theatre