Manbites Dog's Age of Arousal | Theater | Indy Week
Pin It

Manbites Dog's Age of Arousal 

The world as we knew it

click to enlarge From left; Dana Marks, Nicole Quenelle and Lenore Field in "Age of Arousal" - PHOTO BY KEVIN EWERT
  • Photo by Kevin Ewert
  • From left; Dana Marks, Nicole Quenelle and Lenore Field in "Age of Arousal"

Age of Arousal

Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 13

There's more than a whiff of paleontology to the words "our most recent ancestors," which playwright Linda Griffiths uses to refer to the Victorians in an explanatory essay included in the published version of Age of Arousal. But before the end of that play's first act, Griffiths' gutsy, engaging—and frequently poignant and funny—theatrical case history in the anthropology of gender and human sexuality has made its point. In so doing, this exploration of the women's suffrage movement—and the social conditions in 19th-century England that led to several schools of early feminist thought springing out of it—avoids two of the major pitfalls such historical speculations are heir to.

For errant cultural anthropologists have occasionally understated the distance between the subject they've studied and their audience, in the rush to assert universality in some part of human experience. Similar techniques have just as inappropriately exoticized the other in different circumstances, claiming the distance between cultures or times are too great to admit genuine common ground or understanding.

Griffiths' achievement in Age of Arousal is to show us, at once, both how "frighteningly contemporary," in the author's words, these Victorian proto-feminists are to our present worldview, and how distant they are at the same time. Moreover, the playwright's penchant for a theatrical device she terms "thoughtspeak"—having actors deliver their characters' internal thoughts in a sort of verbal italics, alongside the ones they actually speak—repeatedly exposes both their characters' loftiest aspirations and their basest human weaknesses. Since she does, Griffiths avoids another frequent foible in the theater of social conscience—our tendency to beatify our champions out of the realm of human experience.

Mary Barfoot, an ex-militant suffragist, candidly aspires to lift all women into the public realm through teaching them secretarial skills in the 1880s. But jealousy and loneliness do not place her above manipulating her protégé (and increasingly reluctant lover), Rhoda Nunn, or seeking something approaching worship from newer students. Barfoot's brother, the suggestively named Everard, wrestles with laughably voiced thoughts of sexually "initiating" two characters. At the same time he is clearly struggling, on a deep level, to imagine—and then live out—a mutually emancipating relationship with an idealized "New Woman."

The fact that several characters are on this same lookout characterizes the social work in process here more as evolutionary than revolutionary. Where at least two characters reject sexuality—one albeit with considerably more difficulty than the other—to pursue their greatest self, a third embraces sex unreservedly, in an early echo of a major thread in third-wave feminism a century or more later.

Jane Hallstrom delivers a career-defining performance here as suffragette Mary Barfoot, while Nicole Quenelle carefully probes the double binds of desire and duty in yet another intricately developed character study. Lenore Field burns with Alice Madden's spiritually feminist longings, while newcomer Kristin Elliott notably contemplates an entirely different vector of transformation as Monica. Actor Dana Marks' and director Kevin Ewert's interpretation of Virginia indulges in cheap laughs early on, but arguably leaves her character's later transformation still a shade too hypothetical. Though no one should be shocked to learn that Jay O'Berski gets major comic mileage from his character's predicament, he gives his character's ultimate quest its needed gravity.

Griffiths' achievement in an intellectually rigorous but never fusty script is to show us women—and one man—reaching, through a series of conflicting human desires, dreams, beliefs and needs, to evolve themselves and, in doing, to help create a culture that—as one character who quotes Germaine Greer puts it—"endows our differences with dignity and prestige." Perhaps, to take a small liberty with Ewert's program note, it is an evolution that "has still not quite happened yet." Still, this look back to an earlier stage in our development is bracing, touching—and, ultimately, encouraging.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Theater



Twitter Activity

Most Recent Comments

I personally am remarkably intrigued to see this production but since I can't drive myself to it I will sadly …

by Ryan Oliveira on David Harrower Lives Up to His Name in Blackbird, a Challenging Portrait of Abuse (Theater)

I wholeheartedly agree with the position that there should be more structured, civic support for the thriving arts community in …

by ShellByars on Common Ground Closed. Sonorous Road Might Be Next. Is It Curtains for Small, Affordable Theaters in the Triangle? (Theater)

Thank you to all the people who came to Common Ground to see our eclectic, experimental and ever changing theatre …

by RKlem on Common Ground Closed. Sonorous Road Might Be Next. Is It Curtains for Small, Affordable Theaters in the Triangle? (Theater)

Oh, man. I felt at home when I was on Common Ground. I felt free to create however I chose. …

by Mark Jeffrey Miller on Common Ground Closed. Sonorous Road Might Be Next. Is It Curtains for Small, Affordable Theaters in the Triangle? (Theater)

The Triangle needs to do what Arlington VA did: http://www.arlingtonarts.org/cultural-affairs/arts-incubator.aspx

That said, I've worked in both venues and will …

by Lucinda on Common Ground Closed. Sonorous Road Might Be Next. Is It Curtains for Small, Affordable Theaters in the Triangle? (Theater)

Comments

I personally am remarkably intrigued to see this production but since I can't drive myself to it I will sadly …

by Ryan Oliveira on David Harrower Lives Up to His Name in Blackbird, a Challenging Portrait of Abuse (Theater)

I wholeheartedly agree with the position that there should be more structured, civic support for the thriving arts community in …

by ShellByars on Common Ground Closed. Sonorous Road Might Be Next. Is It Curtains for Small, Affordable Theaters in the Triangle? (Theater)

© 2017 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation