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Gray Powell as Everard Barfoot and Zarrin Darnell-Martin as Monica Madden in "Age of Arousal."

David Cooper/Shaw Festival

2.5 out of 4 stars

Age of Arousal

  • Written by Linda Griffiths
  • Directed by Jackie Maxwell
  • Starring Donna Belleville and Jenny Young
  • At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake

When it comes to matters of sex, the Victorian era is a carnal conundrum. As playwright Linda Griffiths notes in her essay A Flagrantly Weird Age, though the times are practically synonymous with "repressed" and "sexless," the facts tell a more promiscuous story: In 1890s London, for example, venereal disease was rampant and there were more prostitutes per capita than at any other time in English history.

In her 2007 play Age of Arousal, in revival at the Shaw Festival, Griffiths attempts to fill the gap between the perception and reality of the Victorians, particularly in regard to female sexuality, which, if you were to judge solely by most contemporary accounts, didn't exist. Using George Gissing's 1893 novel The Odd Women as a jumping-off point, Griffiths takes us into the lives and minds of five forward-thinking women.

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The setting is a secretarial school run by 60-something militant suffragette Mary (Donna Belleville) and her younger lover Rhoda (Jenny Young) in 1885 London - to use the oxymoronic description from the program, "a nascent hotbed of feminist thought." Learning to take dictation may not seem that progressive now, but at the time the typewriter was a weapon for expanding women's economic independence, opening up new avenues of employment. (Suitably, this new writing machine was constructed by a firearms company, Remington.)

Rhoda runs into three sisters she knows from her youth who have fallen on hard times - alcoholic Virginia (Kelli Fox), asexual Alice (Sharry Flett) and the sexually licentious Monica (Zarrin Darnell-Martin) - so she invites them to enroll in her school. As Mary and Rhoda's relationship without a name slowly dissolves, all of the women go on their own personal journey, discovering what truly lies underneath their corsets.

Along with these women, there's also a token male character, Mary's nephew Everard Barfoot, who progresses away from his reactionary views to embracing the Woman Question - not to mention embracing a couple of the women in question. Played by the reliable Gray Powell, Everard gets many of the best lines. "Men aren't afraid of women, really," he says after a very funny, parodic scene in which all the female characters faint. "Only of women in groups."

Ostensibly in order for us to get past the surface of the era, Griffiths sprinkles the script with brief asides she calls "thoughtspeak" that gives us access to the characters' interior monologues. Where these prove most fruitful is in showing the often personal motives lying behind their political statements.

But they're not as effective as they could be in revealing the hidden truth about the Victorians, because Mary and Rhoda and the rest don't seem to hold much back in the first place. And the "thoughtspeak" is overwritten, often impossible to play with any truth, and is full of euphemisms or minced oaths like "doodle" and "frig."

Plus, as Griffiths fully admits, Age of Arousal takes place in "an idea, a dream of Victorian England" rather than the real thing. Perhaps any new play set in that period does, but the inexactitude of it all dilutes its impact. Though stuffed with thoughts about demographics and social change, communication technology and even cross-dressing, this play ultimately feels less like a play of ideas than a play of ideas about ideas.

The whole thing calls for a lighter, less solemn approach than the one director Jackie Maxwell takes. There's a spiritual, quasi-astrological feeling to the proceedings here, which take place on a strangely portentous planet-filled set designed by Sue LePage that makes the characters appear as giants inhabiting the universe.

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Ultimately, Age of Arousal is a postmodern comedy that ends not with a wedding, but - as in Ann-Marie MacDonald's Belle Moral, another Victorian fantasy showcased at the Shaw Festival - with the construction of a new, enlightened kind of family. With solid performances from the entire cast, it holds our interest, but ultimately, the play and production promise more than they provide.

Age of Arousal continues at the Shaw Festival until Oct. 10.

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