The Raw and the Undercooked
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The Raw and the Undercooked

The acting is the saving grace in Factory Theatre’s "naked" revival of Linda Griffiths' Age of Arousal.

Leah Doz as Monica and Sam Kalilieh as Everard in Factory Theatre's season opener, Linda Griffiths' Age of Arousal  Photo by Racheal McCaig

Leah Doz as Monica and Sam Kalilieh as Everard in Factory Theatre’s season opener, Linda Griffiths’ Age of Arousal. Photo by Racheal McCaig.

Age of Arousal
Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street)
Runs to Nov. 8
2 5stars

It all sounds very saucy: Age of Arousal opens Factory Theatre‘s “Naked” season. In fact, none of the actors strip to their birthday suits in this revival of the late Linda Griffiths‘ popular Victorian-era comedy, but their characters definitely have sex on the brain.

One of the conceits of Griffiths’ play is that everyone speaks their inner thoughts at the same time as their outward dialogue. This leads to amusing conversations in which, say, a mutually attracted couple’s high-minded banter is laced with lusty exclamations about “quivering loins” and trouser-bursting erections. But it can also lead to confusion. As delivered by this cast, under Jennifer Brewin’s uncertain direction, the difference between the outer and inner voices isn’t always clear. You find yourself asking, “Did she just say that out loud?”

That’s only one of the problems with Brewin’s production, which kicks off a season that promises “Canadian Classics Reimagined.” This is more like a classic that’s been under-imagined. To judge from this show, when Factory talks about adopting a naked aesthetic, it means no set, just a few props, and costumes and hairstyles that only vaguely approximate the play’s historical period. Watching it is like watching a run-through in a rehearsal hall. A rehearsal hall with bad acoustics—Factory’s Mainspace, denuded of décor, echoes badly.

The inimitable Griffiths had a talent for taking other people’s stories and putting her own distinctive imprint on them, starting with her first hit, Maggie and Pierre, and extending through such later works as The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson and Alien Creature (about poet Gwendolyn MacEwen). Age of Arousal, which premiered in Calgary in 2007, was, in her words, “wildly inspired” by British author George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women, and Griffiths uses its characters and situations to her own purpose.

The book, whose admirers included George Orwell, exposed the difficulties faced by single women—the “odd” ones statistically destined never to be paired with men—as they try to eke out a living in the patriarchal society of the late 19th century. Griffiths turns Gissing’s tale into a more explicit picture of emerging feminism, while at the same time wittily exposing the erotic tensions simmering below the characters’ “civilized” surface.

Mary Barfoot (Julie Stewart), an aging former suffragette, has put aside protests for a more practical activism and now runs a typing school to empower single women. Aiding her is her ardent young protégée and lover, Rhoda Nunn (Marie Beath Badian). Into their lives stumble the impoverished Madden sisters, childhood friends of Rhoda. The oldest two—Alice (Juno Rinaldi) and Virginia (Aviva Armour-Ostroff)—are self-proclaimed spinsters who prove ripe for Mary’s courses in self-sufficiency. The youngest, pretty Monica (a doe-eyed Leah Doz), is deemed less in need of bread-winning skills as she is more likely to hook a man.

A promising prospect presents itself in the form of Mary’s cousin Everard (a suave Sam Kalilieh), an ex-doctor turned man of leisure with progressive ideas. But then Everard finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Rhoda, his ideal of the “New Woman,” while she finds that, in spite of her ostensible lesbianism, he makes her nether regions tingle. Or, as Griffiths would put it, there are “flutterings down below.”

Griffiths’ play sometimes reads like a mash-up of Gissing and some quaint Victorian erotica, complete with puerile euphemisms (“My doodle is stirred again,” Everard—or should that be “Ever-hard?”—says) and awkward archaisms (“Frig me into the ground”). But at its best, Age of Arousal manages to be both silly and sexy at the same time. And beyond the giggles and the soap-opera plot, there’s an affecting picture of these “odd women” struggling for independence and making startling self-discoveries.

The most moving one in this production is the transformation of Armour-Ostroff’s sad, alcoholic Virginia, who takes a trip to Berlin and comes back happy, sober, and dressed as a man. Armour-Ostroff plays the role with a shy bravery, even in the face of brutal transgender phobia, that makes you want to cheer for her character.

She and her fellow cast members do their own struggling against the mediocre staging and wretched acoustics, but manage to turn in some pleasing performances. Especially enjoyable are the play’s set pieces: a blindfold typing race; a scene where the women demonstrate the art of fainting, which closes Act I; and the Act II opener, in which the characters take in London’s first Impressionist exhibition and are bowled over by what art critic Robert Hughes famously called “the shock of the new.”

The acting also grows stronger as the plot takes a more serious turn. This is ultimately a more emotionally involving version of Griffiths’ play than the one that originally played Factory in 2007. And given that previous show’s unfortunate set design—described at the time by Globe and Mail critic Kamal Al-Solayee as “one of the most hideous of any major production in recent memory”—this unadorned approach must be considered some kind of improvement. But as directors like Weyni Mengesha (Lungs) and Richard Rose (Abyss) have recently shown us, stripping a play bare is as much of an art as dressing it up. Age of Arousal could use some of that same artistry.

Perhaps we’ll get that with the next show in Factory’s Mainspace: a revival of Anosh Irani’s Bombay Black, directed by Peter Hinton. We’re looking forward to seeing what that famously flamboyant auteur will do with the theatre’s “naked” agenda.