Lush violins and huge, opulent flowers — think Georgia O’Keefe — suspended over Matthew Saunders’ deep scarlet set establish a mood far sexier and more interesting than the play will be. The U.S. premiere of Canadian Linda Griffiths’ “Age of Arousal” is a tarted-up throwback, a “wild” reworking of George Gissing’s 19th century novel “The Odd Women” without the Victorian shock value.
“Odd women” were those who were “unpaired,” middle-class spinsters who rebelled against societal expectations and learned skills so they could support themselves and gain independence by entering the world of commerce. To this end, middle-aged feminist activist Mary Barfoot (Mary Martello), after hunger strikes and prison, decides she has “barfed and bled for the last time.” She opens a business school, teaching typing and shorthand with her young lover, Rhoda Nunn (Krista Hoeppner, who’s far too pretty to be the “plain” one).
They take in three sisters as pupils — young, lascivious blonde Monica (Larisa Polonsky), secret drunk Virginia (Roxanne Wellington) and repressed, disapproving eldest sibling Alice (Monique Fowler). Add the necessary man to the mix, Everard (Eric Martin Brown), who really gets around — he’s Mary’s nephew and part-time gynecologist (!?), as well as lover to Monica and Rhoda.
There’s much agonized talk — about sexual desire, jealousy, Impressionist paintings, the institution of marriage, menopause — apparently to prove that nothing much has changed, that men have the upper hand, that women want babies, that lack of education leads to exploitation, that love conquers nothing.
All this gets pretty tedious, especially since the characters are annoying and their motives muddled and contrived. Even more irritating is Griffiths’ gimmick of having the characters speak their thoughts to us while conversing. This might have worked to theatrically reveal the divided self, the prison of respectability, but their thoughts are couched in language as formal and archaic as their speech (“a quivering in my loins”). The problem is compounded by everybody’s inconsistent fake English accents.
Director Blanka Zizka has wittily staged the scenes — each announced by a typed surtitle like “The Dream,” “The Fight” — as people emerge from lighted boxes. There is a fainting scene, as each of the five women succumbs (“How voluptuous to be feeble!”) at the end of act one, which should be funnier than it is.
Mary has the amplitude of bosom that makes you wish she really would loosen that corset; although she is the most liberated of the five women, she is the only one wearing such conspicuously uncomfortable clothing. If one of the lessons about female freedom is the discovery of the comfort of men’s clothes (“the wonder of pockets”), the costumes (by Janus Stefanowicz) reveal instead how lovely long, flowing skirts are and how graceless Virginia looks in trousers.
Contemporary sexual politics are too interesting to abandon to the play’s final joke: “In 30 years,” which is to say 1915, “it will all be accomplished.” The line begs for a wry chuckle it doesn’t get.