by Lynn on September 12, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

The Shaw Festival of course presents the plays of Shaw, his contemporaries and those dealing with the time of Shaw. Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell isn’t satisfied with this challenge, she has taken it upon herself to champion a visible “minority”: Women. She has programmed plays by women, directed by them often about them. The last two openings at the Shaw Festival—AGE OF AROUSAL and SERIOUS MONEY –cover all the bases. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to explain.

Hello Lynn. So tell us how these two plays cover all the bases?

AGE OF AROUSAL is written by Linda Griffiths, a fixture of the Canadian theatre scene. Directed by Jackie Maxwell.

It takes place in 1885 and is about Mary Barfoot, an ex-suffragette, and Rhoda Nunn, Mary’s partner in business and life. They run a secretarial school for women so they can be independent of men for their livelihood, and self-sufficient.

Rhoda describes herself as “odd” which can mean many things— odd person out, not conforming to the norm of what is expected. Odd in her sexual preference. Certainly the subject matter of AGE Of AROUSAL is startling. We rarely see plays set in the Victorian era dealing with lesbians. Sex plays heavily in the play. Mary loves Rhoda, and a dashing man lusts after Rhoda as well, among others we learn. And as the characters deal with their gush of thoughts, they voice them in what Griffiths calls ‘thought speak.’

SERIOUS MONEY is written by British writer, Caryl Churchill and directed by Eda Holmes and is a bit off the beaten track.

How so?

It’s part of programming that is outside the Shaw mandate but the plays are by writers who like Shaw, provoke. And if Caryl Churchill is anything she is provocative.

SERIOUS MONEY is set in London and is about the greed of stock brokers, shady investment bankers and corporate raiders. Sounds like today? It was written in 1987 and Churchill was writing about the excess of the 80s (times don’t change, just the amount of money.) And it’s done in rhyming couplets. The language is raw, hard-hitting and shocking. Often characters talk at the same time. Be brave, keep up or duck. There is nothing tame about either play.

Are the productions as wild as the plays seem to be?

They are but in different ways. This is the third production of AGE OF AROUSAL that I’ve seen and it’s the best of the lot. Jackie Maxwell and her designer Sue LePage have created an elegant production. It’s a world of grit and light, suggesting enlightenment, which is what Mary and Rhoda had worked for. The staging is like a dance, sometimes wary, sometimes swirling, in which the innocent as well as the experienced are sucked up into the swirl.

The cast is uniformly strong. As Mary, Donna Belleville has a gravitas, a confidence and yet an uncertainty when it comes to Rhoda. As Rhoda, Jenny Young continues to go from strength to strength— there is a steely maturity to Rhoda thanks to this fine performance. And I have to mention Sharry Flett as one of the lost women who comes to Mary and Rhoda for help. Her character is full of desperation, and grace. The performance is totally compelling.

And SERIOUS MONEY, should be completely different.

And it is. Director Eda Holmes has created the beautifully dressed, but frenzied, volatile world of the London stock exchange, or any one for that matter. This world is ruthless. Characters look relaxed with their hands in their well tailored pants pockets, but they are mentally shooting bullets at their opponents. These are people who smile without a shred of warmth. Characters charge around yelling their buy and sell orders. It’s the best ensemble work I’ve seen anywhere. The whole group chants a song at the end of Act I that escalates to a fevered pich, ending in a shouted word that pins you to the seat.

And no, I can’t say the word on radio.

Graeme Somerville plays a head Honcho of a company, using a soft voice, a sharp stare and control. As a South American moneyed woman with shady connections, Nicola Correia-Damude is full of confidence, sensuality and is dangerous.

It’s a terrific cast and performance. But you have been warned about how hard hitting it is. AGE OF AROUSAL is forceful in a different, gentler way, and both are worthy of people who want to be challenged and provoked.

AGE OF AROUSAL plays at the Shaw Festival until Oct. 10.

SERIOUS MONEY plays until September 12.