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theatre review

Leah Doz and Sam Kalilieh perform in Age of Arousal by the Factory Theatre.Racheal McCaig Photography

There's a difference between being naked and not wearing any clothes – and Factory Theatre had better figure that out quickly. Otherwise, the so-called "Naked Season" that artistic director Nina Lee Aquino launched this week at the troubled theatre company will go down as one of the biggest mistakes in its history.

Age of Arousal, a much-produced 2007 play by the late Linda Griffiths, is the first of six Canadian classics that Aquino and her company has promised to "reimagine" this season as a series of "pure theatrical encounters between the audience, the actor, the text, and the empty space."

"Wildly inspired" by a 1893 novel called The Odd Women by George Gissing, Age of Arousal takes us into Victorian secretarial school run by a suffragette named Mary (Julie Stewart) and her younger lover, Rhoda (Marie Beath Badian). At a time when women outnumbered men in England by almost half a million, Mary and Rhoda recruit "odd women" – those who won't or don't want to find a husband – and teach them how to earn their own living using a powerful weapon manufactured by Remington: the typewriter.

The play begins as Mary and Rhoda invite three sisters who have fallen on hard times to join their feminist collective – the depressive drinker Virginia (Aviva Armour-Ostroff); the cheerfully deluded Alice (Juno Rinaldi); and the young, sexually voracious Monica (Leah Doz). Everard Barfoot (a suave and silly Sam Kalilieh) is the token male character, a man of leisure and cousin of the radical Mary – and his arrival on the scene wreaks havoc, both accidentally and on purpose.

Anachronistic and anarchic, Griffiths' surprising and funny script is full of dialectical dialogue exploring feminist thought then and now. Will entering the work force free women, or enslave them? Where do the ideals of equality smack up against the realities of bodies? Can sex be free of power dynamics – and, if it could, would it still be sexy? Griffiths, who passed away last year at 60, packed Age of Arousal so full of ideas that it actually seems to overflow – as her characters regularly burst out of naturalism into stream-of- consciousness asides that the playwright called "thoughtspeak."

Director Jennifer Brewin finds exactly the right tone for these tricky sections – seeing them primarily as a comic invention, there to undercut or underscore. She encourages her actors to physically release at the same time unleash verbally – and the results are lively and playful.

As spinsters Virginia and Alice, Armour-Ostroff and Rinaldi, under towering hairdos, really steal the show with performances that border on clown – and the highlight of production is a mass fainting spell, a gender burlesque that they lead at the end of the first act. (These two are also the most moving when their stories turn dramatic.) Indeed, Brewin elicits entertainingly off-balance performances from all of her cast. What she doesn't do, however, is make the case that the "Naked Season" is anything but theatre without a budget for design.

Housed in a Victorian mansion, Factory Theatre has an unorthodox stage – it's shaped like the T-block in Tetris, one long rectangular platform close to the audience, then a smaller square one further back glimpsed through a puzzlingly placed proscenium arch. The acoustics in this space are bad enough when the stage is full of curtains, set pieces and props, but empty it turns into a echoing cavern – voices often hard to hear, or indistinct. Only in a scene set at an art gallery, where Griffiths takes us into the minds of each of the characters as they react to an Impressionist painting for the first time, does Brewin use the unadorned space fully.

Otherwise, she tries to create fictional spaces within it through the murky and inexact lighting of designer Jennifer Lennon and a few off-putting rehearsal room blocks and stools; in between scenes, the actors walk on and off in haphazard half-light, dressed in ugly semi-costumes, while sloppy sound cues are heard. (There's no sound or costume designer credited, only a sound co-ordinator and head of wardrobe.)

Instead of letting these "odd" women use this odd space in creative, non-representational ways, Brewin forgets the "reimagining" – and essentially directs Age of Arousal as if it is a regular production waiting for a set and proper costumes to arrive.

Brewin, who has a history of site-specific work, has missed the opportunity to use this Victorian mansion as a Victorian mansion and her staging draws attention to the limitations that have been imposed upon her. (The entire production would be improved, honestly, by turning the lights on and leaving them on throughout.) At the moment, if you squint, you might find actors giving excellent performances in an excellent play.

From when it was announced, cynics have seen Factory's Naked Season as a way of putting on a positive spin on keeping costs low. I was more optimistic.