Worth a peek

Theatre Projects Manitoba’s Age of Arousal offers up a hilarious look at love, lust and sexuality in 19th-century England



Theatre Projects Manitoba

Until March 29, Rachel Browne Theatre

Linda Griffiths’ uproarious take on the Victorian era, Age of Arousal, has found a perfect home with Theatre Projects Manitoba.

Loosely based on the George Gissing novel The Odd Women, the play is a subversive, slightly surreal tale of lust, love and feminism in late 19th-century England which the cast and crew have artfully crafted into a delightful mix of comedy and pathos.

Set in an age in which women vastly outnumber men, Mary Barfoot (Patricia Hunter) and her lover Rhoda Nunn (Krista Jackson) run a school to teach women secretarial skills in order to support themselves. Enter the Madden sisters: the two spinsters Virginia and Alice (Carolyn Gray and Maggie Nagle), and the beautiful young shop girl Monica (Erin McGrath). Add Mary’s dashing cousin Everard (Eric Blais) to the mix and all hell breaks loose.

Rooted in sublime performances, especially those of Hunter, Gray and Nagle as women all on the edge of oblivion as far as the world is concerned, Age of Arousal turns the morals and repression of Victorian England upside down and sets them ablaze. In Griffiths’ hands this could barely be a more raucous and subversive romp.

While all of the characters struggle with their own inner passions, Griffiths cleverly allows us a first row seat into their psyches with her creation of ‘thought speak,’ in which the characters’ innermost thoughts are blurted out seemingly uncontrollably. Though it is not always a perfect device – there are occasions when characters’ voices are overlapping to such an extent it’s difficult to hear what is being said – but overall it’s illuminating and often downright hilarious.

The implementation of ‘thought speak’ also adds a pleasingly visceral element to the proceedings. The characters are often at odds with themselves within the realms of the inner/outer world, and the brute force of the tug-of-war between inner passion and outer duty is fascinating. It also leads to some exuberantly physical and comic performances, most notably by the marvelous Gray, whose tortured Virginia is an absolute wreck who transforms into a whole new person. Nothing or no one in this play is set in stone – sexuality, desire and passion are almost living, breathing elements which transform from moment to moment.

Leanne Foley’s design for the show, including the set and costumes, carefully bring about notions of the Victorian age, bustles and all, but yet, as with the characters, things are not quite as they seem. The design evokes the era while keeping it fresh and modern.

Special kudos must go to Eric Blais, the lone male in the production, who manages to be both dashing and sympathetic and not get lost among the whirling force of female passion. Blais is a brave man to undertake the task, which includes having to fake a pelvic exam with the luminous Hunter, and both manage to make it seem perfectly casual and absolutely hilarious.

Age of Arousal is a gorgeous melding of old/new, political/personal and passion/ repression into a heady mix of wit and intelligence. It’s a delight to watch.

– Barb Stewart