The Age of Arousal
by Linda Griffiths
A Co-Production of The Maggie Tree and Blarney Productions
in association with Theatre of the New Heart
Presented at C103
April Banigan, Jesse Gervais, Kristi Hansen
Sandra M. Nicholls, Caley Suliak, and Melissa Thinglestad
Directed by Wayne Paquette
Produced by Wayne Paquette, Kristi Hansen, and Vanessa Sabourin
Movement by Lin Snelling
Production Design by Jennifer Goodman
Sound Design by Sydney Gross
Stage Managed by Joan Wyatt
Photography by Marc J. Chalifoux
Poster by David Van Belle
The Maggie Tree: http://www.themaggietree.com/
Nominated for 1 Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award:
Best Independent Production
VUE WEEKLY – Mel Priestley
Human sexuality is a moving target. That’s a glib way to put it, certainly, but it’s nevertheless a persistent idea running through Linda Griffiths’ Age of Arousal.
So, too, is feminist discourse a slippery slope, and we certainly hear a lot of it over the course of the play, Edmonton’s current production of which is, significantly, a partnership between women-oriented The Maggie Tree and male-led Blarney Productions.
Age of Arousal begins with a bloodcurdling scream issued by Mary Barfoot (played by the excellent Sandra Nicholls), an ex-suffragette who runs a secretarial school for “odd” women—those who will never be paired with a man, thanks to the hugely unbalanced population of 1885 London, when there was nearly half a million more women than men. Mary’s business partner and lover, Rhoda (Kristi Hansen), sets the story in motion by taking pity on a destitute friend and her sisters by offering them places in the school.
The play’s setting is a peculiar moment in history that marked the rise of “the new woman,” a significant shift in women’s societal roles that, as the audience witnesses, was alternately regarded as a curse or a blessing depending on who you asked. While some of the discourse, and certainly most of the period’s immediate steps towards women’s equality are, of course, outdated (learning to type and becoming secretaries as their major goals towards liberation, for example), it’s fascinating to see that the basic impetus behind these actions still resonates strongly with a 21st-century audience.
Griffiths’ rich script dances between heavy-handed feminist rhetoric and clever, deliberate undermining of said rhetoric; it’s also quite hilarious, largely owing to a wonderful device coined “thoughtspeak” by the playwright, in which characters jump from their external conversation with another person to an internal monologue about their true thoughts and emotions. No small amount of dramatic irony is created by this machination, and the actors all do a wonderful job keeping the different lines of dialogue clear and separate—not to mention maintaining a straight face whilst on a particularly bawdy streak.
Lest you think it’s all raunchy double entendres and frivolous banter, however, know that the second act delivers a veritable blitz of bombs dropped in succession, as all the big issues come bubbling to a head. Six months pass between the first and second acts, which seems initially jarring after returning from intermission and seeing several characters suddenly behaving very differently. While this is certainly a sign of their dynamism, not everyone will appreciate or accept these changes—depending on your personal convictions, you might even take offense to some of them. The changes in Rhoda’s character present some particularly troubling implications for both feminism and queer politics. Though set in a specific historical time period, Age of Arousal isn’t really a period piece—or at least, it certainly doesn’t look like one. The costumes are slick, stylish mash-ups of contemporary and period clothing, as well as feminine and masculine styles: a boyish tie and button-down shirt underneath a leather corset, for example. It’s details like these, along with the script’s contradictory politics and frustrating character turns, and especially the excellent performances by the entire cast, that make this production highly provocative—in all connotations of the word.
St. ALBERT GAZETTE – Anna Borowiecki
Age of Arousal explores feminine and masculine sexuality
How does a self-identified lesbian deal with experiencing an explosive attraction to a member of the opposite sex? That is one of the steamiest questions Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths asks in Maggie Tree’s latest sparkling production of The Age of Arousal.
Now running at C103 (formerly Catalyst Theatre) until Sunday, March 17, Age of Arousal uses the platform of a Victorian suppressed society to explore and expose the full range of female sexuality and different individuals’ responses to it.
Set in 1885, Griffiths presents five Victorian women and one man struggling with finances and sex after the first wave of the suffragette movement. A one-time scrappy suffragette, Mary Barfoot has established a secretarial school teaching young women new skills that allow them to enter the financial world and achieve emancipation. Her battle sword is the Remington typewriter.
Mary’s adoring younger protégé and lover Rhoda encounters an old friend and her two sisters who are completely destitute. The three unmarried sisters, Alice, Virginia and Monica, were born into privilege but plunged into poverty after their father died.
Alice, the eldest, is very proper, chaste and traditional. Virginia, a former governess, drowns her misery in the bottle, and Monica, the youngest, challenges traditional wisdom and is very sexually active.
Joining this turbulent whirlpool of women is Everard, Mary’s cousin and a confident, 30-something doctor on the lookout for sexual encounters all the while avoiding the siren song of matrimony.
The first act is full of small surprises and kicks off with a few tender lesbian kisses tastefully directed under the artful hand of Wayne Paquette, artistic director of Blarney Productions.
But the real story starts when Everard arrives and the tension-filled man-woman relationships shift into restrained passion-fuelled dances.
Griffiths demands a great deal from her cast and of the audience. She has incorporated “thought-speak,” where characters add unspoken immediate thoughts, not as an aside, but in the flow of dialogue.
This technique beautifully highlights the Victorian clash between polite manners and real life, but requires agile acting and deft listening. At times, the “thought-speak” confuses the listener but it also plays up the characters’ inner conflicts as they learn more about themselves.
This is an exemplary cast. Sandra Nicholls as Mary is the perfect blend as a woman who is tough and battle-scarred, yet caring and compassionate. Kristi Hansen plays Rhoda with passion and a razor sharp wit. Caley Suliak, who plays the highly sexual Monica, delivers a performance that is both predatory yet warm and childlike when her plan backfires.
Melissa Thingelstad turns in a magnificent comedic performance as Virginia, a soused alcoholic who sheds her past and morphs into a confident, cigarette-smoking cross-dresser. April Banigan’s Alice slowly emerges a passionate woman that learns to embrace her maternal instincts. Lastly, Jesse Gervais turns Everard into an ever randy, but charming rogue.
Paquette keeps the two-act play moving at a fast clip and has successfully directed a show that is witty, intelligent, lively and funny. The nature of sexuality was a taboo subject in the Victorian era. Leaving the theatre you wonder how much, if anything, has really changed in the last 125 years.
SOUND AND NOISE – Hayley Moorhouse
Rewriting History: Age of Arousal at C103
This week, Edmonton’s C103 has been hijacked by a wild and witty anti-Freudian uprising. Linda Griffiths’s Age of Arousal, a The Maggie Tree/Blarney Production Co-op (in association with Theatre of the New Heart), envelops its audiences in London’s 19th century erotic revolution. It follows a motley crew of self-proclaimed “odd” women in their ambition to lend a meaningful voice to the fairer sex. Ex-suffragette Mary Barfoot, together with her sometimes-protégé sometimes-lover Rhoda Nunn, runs a school for female typists. When the Madden sisters, a trio of woebegone and listless vagrants (all hopeless, save Monica, the “pretty” one) find themselves enlisted as students, each woman’s understanding of her place in the world is turned on its head. Playwright Griffiths explores the struggles of formerly oppressed women to rise above their circumstances, to escape classification, or perhaps to rewrite their definitions entirely. For the first time in history, women had a measure of authorship over their own stories, and through the central motif of the Remington typewriter, this invigorating Canadian original finds tension and invention in these voices bubbling to the surface.
Director Wayne Paquette has captained a tight piece that is highly engaging and scarcely ever falters in energy. The weight of the “period piece” label is lessened by quick and precise transitions. Impressive clarity of movement (under the guidance of movement designer Lin Snelling) and subtly affecting sound design (Sydney Gross) are utilized well in Age of Arousal to keep the action moving and the stakes high. However, events began to drag in the latter part of the second act; repetitive conflict, gaudy language and a lengthy running time managed to swallow up a bit of the show’s intrigue, but only momentarily. These detriments were more than overcome by the collectively enchanting performances. In particular, actresses Sandra M. Nicholls and Melissa Thingelstad took their characters on a detailed and multi-faceted journey. Nicholls was wonderfully prickly, sarcastic and guilt-ridden as school matron Mary Barfoot, while Thingelstad shone as Virginia Madden, the feeble drunk with a hidden strength. Perhaps as attention-grabbing as the characters themselves was the deliciously thematic costume design; the stamped-in typewriter-font texts on the skirts, corsets and petticoats were bold and unmoving labels – among them, “deviant”, “odd” and “radical”. This darkly clever touch of imagination illuminated the daunting task of self-determination that these women faced.
Age of Arousal was surprising in a number of ways. For one, it was frequently – and hysterically – funny, a trait that many 19th century period pieces cannot claim. Moreover, it was vulgar, layered and honest. Uninhibited inner thoughts were presented in quick succession and in direct contradiction to carefully tempered dialogue. Griffiths’s work erupted with originality, and was performed with great zeal by the entire creative team.
THE EDMONTON SUN – Colin MacLean
Age of Arousal is a new work by Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths (Maggie and Pierre).
Griffiths goes back to the 1880s, a generation before women in Britain got the vote, to examine the roots of the suffragette movement. But, rather than recycle the old Shavian discussion of Victorian attitudes toward women, she uses the venerable arguments as a scalpel to probe the lives of a group of people who prove much more complex than they first appear to be.
Mary (Sandra M. Nicholls) and Rhoda (Kristi Hansen) have settled into a comfortable lesbian relationship as they run a school for women. Mary is a veteran of the equality wars. She has marched, been beaten and even force-fed.
Rhoda is an obsessive battler for women’s rights, describing herself as “ferociously odd.” Their “machine of the future,” that will free women and “open the closed monolith of business” is the Remington Typewriter.
Seemingly typical of the women of the time “grown ignorant and degraded” are two fluttery sisters, Alice (April Bannigan) and Virginia (Melissa Thingelstad), who are taken in but become so overcome at the idea of becoming typists they get the vapours and faint, wailing, “I cannot learn. I do not understand.”
There is a third sister, Monica (Caley Suliak), a young lady of budding sexuality who is willing, playful and ravenous. She represents a generation that feels that the way to freedom is through sex.
And yes, there is a man. He is cousin Everard (Jesse Gervais) known as “a hedonist.” He is certainly a young man about town with a small income and a blistering libido. After one particularly prickly discussion he observes, “Men are not afraid of women, really. Only in groups.”
Each of these people will be severely tested by subsequent events. Some will hold onto their beliefs — others will morph into something else completely but at the end of this two-and-a-half hour play (with a 15-minute intermission) no one will be the same.
Griffith writes in an agile, stylized, modern manner with the characters having both inner and outer dialogues. They do not speak in asides but in a stream of words that explain to themselves, as much as to the audience, how they feel. Which leads to a number of effective scenes where two people might converse in a highly civilized manner while, in their minds, they are conducting most graphic sexual investigations of each other’s bodies.
This fine company of actors carry it off very well and there is no confusion as to which voice they are using.
Wayne Paquette’s fervent and heartfelt production moves slowly through the rather literary first act but the second packs some impressive emotional fireworks. The director subtly guides us through acts of self-realization leading to an examination of the meaning of love and, literally, to both life and death. The acting company is nothing short of superb, slowly and effectively developing their characters, making it difficult to single out any performance. There is not a weak actor on the stage.
Three and a half stars.
VUE WEEKLY – Mel Priestley
Tempestuous socio-sexual changes roiling just under the surface of those tight-laced Victorian bodices—it’s the heart of playwright Linda Griffiths’ Age of Arousal, and it’s what co-producers The Maggie Tree and Blarney Productions envisioned while working on their upcoming iteration of the show.
“It’s a really sexy play,” says Maggie Tree founder and actress Kristi Hansen, who plays protagonist Rhoda. “An image that we have used a lot is the image of bursting out of the corset: that’s sort of what’s going on at the time and in the play as well.”
Age of Arousal follows Rhoda’s story as an “odd” woman in 1885 London, where for various reasons that include the effects of war, rampant alcoholism and disease, the ratio of women to men was nearly four to one—so many women remained unmarried and were thus unpaired, or odd. Together with her lover Mary Barfoot (Sandra Nicholls), Rhoda runs a secretarial school for other odd women, a background against which the play depicts a fundamental sea change within women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers.
As director Wayne Paquette describes, playwright Linda Griffiths was “wildly inspired by” an 1893 novel by George Gissing titled The Odd Women.
“One of the great things that [Griffiths] has done in this play is she’s coined this phrase called ‘thoughtspeak,’” Paquette says. “We get to see two characters dialoguing, and then also they go into their inner thoughts; we see their inner thoughts explored and talked about on stage. It’s an interesting dynamic of how we present ourselves but also how we’re feeling inside and what that really means to us.”
From the synopsis alone, it’s clear that the script is rife with competing gender politics, something particularly poignant for Hansen’s company, and especially for this particular co-production with a male director. The Maggie Tree’s mandate is to support the development and visibility of women in creative leadership roles in the arts, and Hansen admits to relishing the various contradictions within feminism as well as the run-ins she’s had with the same.
“You get told certain things—you’re not a good feminist if you do that, you’re not a good feminist if you do this; I just think that’s a really interesting part of the movement, in that it’s such in flux, it’s always changing—we’re always asking questions within it,” she notes.
From Paquette’s perspective as a male director working alongside this feminist rhetoric, he notes that there are other avenues of engaging with the piece.
“I’ve tried to approach this on a very personal level, so that these are individuals,” he says. “And I think [Griffiths] is very smart to not make this sort of a slogan piece. It’s about six people and their personal struggles. Each one of them is in a stage of transition. Their ideals, their beliefs are being challenged, and they’re not skirting but they’re going to an edge where they’re now seeing the other side of things; they’re seeing the world in a bigger way.
“No matter where you are in your life, no matter who you are, woman or man, no matter what’s going on in the background, you still have your own personal responsibility to yourself and what you want to do, what you want to contribute to life, to this world,” he continues. “These are just people who are trying to find their place in the world.”
St. ALBERT GAZETTE – Anna Borowiecki
Age of Arousal channels sexual energy and feminist zeal
Just the title ‘Age of Arousal’ hints at the lush eroticism of carnal love. Just how bacchanalian the latest Maggie Tree production is will be revealed at tomorrow’s opening night at C103, formerly Catalyst Theatre.
In this Edmonton premiere of Age of Arousal, playwright Linda Griffiths takes theatergoers to 1885 London, England. It was an odd moment in history in post-emigration Britain when women outnumbered men by 500,000 leaving many single women out of the matrimonial circle.
“The imbalances started to ask questions about female sexuality. Is sexual energy only for men, or is it allowed for women?” says Maggie Tree co-founder Vanessa Sabourin, a former St. Albert Children’s Theatre actress.
Now a Calgary resident and artistic director for Urban Curves, Sabourin is wearing the producer’s hat for this production.
Griffiths concocts a six-character show centred on Mary (Sandra Nicholls), an ex-suffragette who runs a philanthropic school for secretaries with her teacher-lover, Rhoda (Kristi Hansen). Rhoda bumps into an old friend Virginia and discovers she and her sister are living in poverty. Rhoda invites them to the school for secretaries to learn a few skills.
Bu there are bumps in this well-laid plan. Either the sisters are incompetent typists or they are focused on the sexual revolution. Everard Barfoot (Jessie Gervais), Mary’s cousin, an ex-doctor enters just before he is about to embark on a life of leisure. Almost immediately there is a role reversal and the sexy ensemble erupts with new discoveries.
“Linda does a wonderful job of combining modern sensibilities with 1800 styles. The images of bodice-ripping run right through.”
Sabourin and Hansen jointly conceived Maggie Tree as a company that would give leadership roles to women and tell women’s stories from the female perspective.
Up until now women have directed all productions. Wayne Paquette, artistic director of Blarney Productions brought Age of Arousal to the company’s attention.
“We loved the script and were surprised nobody was picking it up.”
Instead of directing it, the Sabourin-Hansen team handed the directorial reins to Paquette.
“Wayne is a director of great sensitivity and skill. Because Wayne is a super artist and has a real passion for the script he was the obvious choice. Why should it be only women supporting the agenda? By including men, it makes it a two-way dialogue, not just one perspective.”
For Sabourin, the play is summed up as being true to yourself.
“It has elements of farce. It’s bright, enlivening and full of tension. It’s a very funny piece and people will enjoy it. It’s a risky piece but that’s what drew us to it.”