The brooding, piercing eyes of Laurence Olivier may have over-romanticized the barren, windy, scraggly English moors for several generations of filmgoers, but the truth, if one paid attention to the film of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” or read the book itself, reveals a lonely, desolated, hardscrabble existence in which romance was actually the exception. The Bronte sisters themselves, Emily, Anne and Charlotte, were definitely products of the moors, and that sense of isolation, boredom and limited opportunities underscores each of their novels.
Playwright Jen Silverman developed an interest in the Bronte sisters several years ago which resulting in a play, quite appropriately titled “The Moors,” which is now enjoying its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre where it runs through February 20. The moors play an essential role in Silverman’s clever and at times wacky riff on the Brontes and their oevres, which draws elements from various Bronte works and sets them in their own off-kilter world, which can be simultaneously bizarre and profound.
In real life, in order to dispel the boredom and routine of their young lives, the Bronte sisters as children engaged their older brother Branwell to join them in acting out wholly original, rather fantastical tales of their own devising concerning a number of imaginary worlds, which allowed them to create locations in their large house from Africa to the northern Pacific. Their fabrications even allowed them to establish worlds that were ruled entirely by women. It is possible that one could regard the play “The Moors” itself as the Brontes’ imaginations on crack, being staged for the audience’s amusement after a particularly bad trip.
Silverman’s characters do not represent the Bronte sisters, but they would be quite at home in any number of their volumes. We first meet sisters Agatha and Huldey as they sit in the family’s paneled Victorian parlor, drenched in shades of dark green that convey a distinct chilliness, lined with family paintings and similar treasures, as part of Alexander Woodward’s accomplished set design. Agatha, played with austere seriousness by the brilliantly controlled and sometime indomitable Kelly McAndrew, is busy knitting and barking out orders to her younger sister, the more agitated Huldey, played with a thwarted resentment by the superb Birgit Huppuch, who is busily writing away in her diary. It is immediately clear that the two women have somewhat limited lives, despite Huldey’s obvious pleasure in the contents of her diary, which from what we can understand, reveals more of her fantasies rather than her actual experiences. She goes so far as to forbid her sister to read the diary whenever she is forced to leave the room, clearly tempting Agatha who seemingly bears no interest whatsoever.
It turns out that, as is appropriate for a Bronte novel, Agatha is awaiting for the arrival of a tutor, a la Jane Eyre, which confuses Huldey since there is no child on the premises. We do learn that brother Branwell may be somewhere upstairs, tormented and suffering from some strange illness that is wasting him away, although he never actually materializes. Lounging next to Huldey is the sisters’ nonchalant large mastiff, played sweetly and convincingly by Jeff Biehl, who reveals that he can talk to the audience as well as to other members of the animal kingdom. There’s also a maid who wears a messier apron and calls herself Mallory when in charge of the scullery, while named Marjory when she serves as the parlor maid. Hannah Cabell delightfully captures her impatience and insouciance quite memorably, even as, we are told, the scullery maid suffers from typhus and the parlor maid is eight months pregnant.
Under Jackson Gay’s expert direction, “The Moors” is ultimately in a genre of its own. It is not an outright farce in the context of say the comedic “The Hound of the Baskervilles” or the Gothic-inspired parody “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” Gay assures that the humor and incongruities balance out some of the play’s more serious themes, such as the toll of isolation, the longing for connection, the impediments to love, and societal traditions, which have required Agatha and Hudley, having missed the opportunities to marry earlier in their lives, to live together under strained conditions as spinsters. Silverman makes us feel especially for the frustrated Hudley, who ultimately provides the Grand Guignol moments that we have suspected or feared may arrive all evening, as well as a croaked out aria that is both a song of triumph and sorrow. Thanks to Huppuch, this scene remains one of the highlights of the 90-minute intermissionless production.
While the human characters are trying to advance their individual secret agendas, the most honest and rewarding discussion about love and connection belongs to the animal characters, Biehl’s unexpectedly insightful mastiff and a moor-hen, played as poised and intelligent by the splendid Jessica Love. They manage to establish a charming connection as the mastiff, normally a hunter of hens, nurses the crash landed moor-hen back to health. Their reverie, touching as it is, proves no match for the hen’s inner cautiousness and the mastiff’s human nature.
Love is absolutely smashing in Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s dashing aviatrix costume which adds a sense of strength and sensibility to her character. His outfit for Biehl includes large noticeable paws and a coat that seems to grown out from under his hair. His quasi-Victorian Gothic layers for the sisters indicate signs of age and somehow desperation, while his outfit for Emilie, Miriam Silverman’s convincing and warmly authoritative tutor, brings a breath of fresh air into the stuffy parlor, contributing to Hudley’s immediate crush on the young woman.
In addition to the overstuffed, forbidding parlor which is set a bit uncomfortably close to the lip of the stage, set designer Woodward opens the set to the moors themselves, symbolized by a semicircular arc of reeds extending upwards at the back of the stage. From there an enormous moon can rise over the outdoor action, and lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin later creates a magnificent red glow from a distant fire that nice overwhelms the moors.
Woodward’s parlor set, whose secret panel is responsible for a deliciously perplexing sight gag early on, can be broken into four sections that float off and on the stage. At several points, Gay allows some of those sections to remain off stage, with certain interior scenes played with Woodward’s moors neatly visible in the background.
While “The Moors” is ultimately rewarding, particularly thanks to the spot-on performances of the cast, it can be a tad frustrating at times, as some of the humor leaves one wanting for more comic action, and the more serious elements promising more twists and secrets than the play finally contains. Silverman knows what she is doing, however, as she is able to get big laughs—for very different reasons—from two of the play’s more bloody moments, both wholly understandable yet genuinely regrettable.
Silverman, although still a new name to the broader theatrical community, is already a prolific playwright whose work will no doubt start turning up more and more on our regional theater stages.
For information and tickets, call the Yale Repertory Theatre’s box office at 203.432.1234 or visit the theater’s box office at www.yalerep.org.