Sitting through Age of Arousal felt like drinking a bottle of soda. It began with some fizzle and thirst-quenching freshness but, by the second act, tasted warm and flat. By the end, it left a slight tartness in my mouth and a remorse for consuming empty calories on my mind.
Age of Arousal, however, does have a great initial premise. Set in 1885, Mary, an aging suffragette and Rhoda, her protégé/clandestine lover, set up a school to teach women the modern skill of typing. In the process, they teach these women to think for themselves and emancipate from the men that have infantilized them their whole lives.
Mary and Rhoda come upon one of their greatest challenges in teaching, the three Madden sisters. These new students threaten to tear apart their professional and personal relationship, as well as their anchored beliefs in feminism.
On a stroll in the city Rhoda bumps into Virginia Madden, an old acquaintance, who has subsequently become a withered spinster, drifting about London half-drunk. She drags Rhoda to her house to meet her elder sister, Alice who is also in a desolate state. Both have been impoverished since the death of their father, who left them without significant money or skill to support themselves. Their only prospect of security is hoping that their younger sister, Monica, marries a man of wealth.
Monica, however, is wary of marriage and burning with a sexual desire that society forces her to smother. One fateful day, she meets Everand, Mary’s cousin, who romances her between the sheets while still unmarried. “There is still time to save myself,” Monica reveals in a soliloquy after having sex, “I could jump out of the window or confess to a priest.”
While she debates her next move, her sisters choose to attend the typewriting classes that Rhoda offers, which leads to some of the more hilarious moments of the play.
The sisters, at first are frightened by the machines. “They are lonely and evil,” shouts Virginia, running from the typewriter after nearly touching one. “It is an instrument of torture that will pinch my fingers and make us look stupid,” her sister Alice squeals in her uproariously quivering voice.
Without a doubt, these two ladies steal the show. Leni Parker’s Virginia stumbles about the stage throughout act one, hair askew and perpetually frazzled, providing hardy laughs. When she comes back in Act Two, she is credibly stern and unsexed, completely changed after a trip to Berlin. Diana Fajrajsl, playing Virginia’s sister Alice, gives a dynamite performance, with a perfectly crafted English accent. Her portrayal of Alice is conflicted, as her constant anger and passion are hidden from all but the audience.
If anyone or anything could possibly upstage this duo, it is quite possibly the sets and costumes. Both were realized by the amazing Michael Eagen, who spared no expense to make Age of Arousal one of the most visually stimulating plays I have seen at the Centaur Theater. From fog machines to moving illuminating lampposts, to multiple backdrops and moving walls, the sets were masterful.
The costumes were also a work of art. Big, flowing gowns in bright, beautiful yellows, blues and pinks, with lace trim for the well-off women, and dark, musty reds and black for the poor ones.
Unfortunately, by the time the second act came along, I was much less pleased with the story line and execution of the play.
Rhoda and Everand embark on a romantic escapade, upsetting Mary. Virginia heads to Berlin to explore the world, while Monica attracts many suitors and gets engaged many times over. Alice continues to type and explore her mind, while condemning her sisters’ choices.
The biggest fault of Act Two is that ideological feminism is being treated as more important than the actual plot. Each woman has to deal with her individual plight as it relates to her feminist belief, which is important to examine, but rather dull to watch.
This is only worsened by poor pacing, as Act Two is jilted by a constant stop-start motion. Ten minutes is spent on an ideological debate, while the passing of five months is represented by a second’s change in lighting. This leads me to believe that the play would have much more success as a film, where a camera could be used to pan across landscapes and properly show the passage of time.
The two leads, Mary and Rhoda, played by Clare Coulter and Alison Darcy correspondingly, give tepid performances throughout. Coulter seems to internalize all her speech, speaking quickly with lack of emphasis. Darcy is slightly better, but only in speech, for she often relies on onstage antics that appear contrived and fake.
Ultimately, Age of Arousal did not fully quench my thirst to see a realized play. I did enjoy the initial gulps, but aside from the saccharine taste of its sets and supporting players, it ultimately fell flat.
Age of Arousal is playing at the Centaur Theater from now until April 19. Tickets are $24 for students and $32 to $42.50 for adults.