By Karen Isaacs
After seeing The Moors, the play now getting its world premiere at the Yale Rep, you will never be able to see or read Jane Eyre, Wuthuring Heights or any other gothic romance, with a totally straight face.
Playwright Jen Silverman has taken these romance/thrillers and turned them on their side. But she has also channeled Pinter with a pregnant pauses throughout.
We have the bleak moors of northern England or Scotland where the sky is gloomy, the spaces vast and the danger always lurking in the isolation of the region. The play opens with two sisters sitting the living room. Agatha is not only older but the one in charge which is quickly revealed as she order her sister, Huldey to check on various household tasks. A governess is expected that day. The only other thing in the room is a large mastiff dog, played by Jeff Biehl. Huldey views herself as a great literary figure and is constantly writing in her journal which she hopes Agatha will read but never does.
Soon the governess arrives – a typically well-bred young woman of impoverished means who moves from house to house. As she explains, often the lady of the house wants her gone and the gentleman of the house pursues her. But where is a child?
Beside a rather unkempt and dirty servant (or is there two?), the only other reference is to the brother Master Branwell who is never seen. That is a joke for literary types in the know; Branwell was the brother of the Bronte sisters.
As the play progresses through its 90 minutes or so, a surprising amount happens. Much of what happens is in keeping with those Victorian gothic novels. Suppressed sexuality and longing for romance bubbles just below the surface though sometimes it comes pouring out. Domination and cruelty are also underlying much of what goes on. Closely describing the twists and turns of the plot would spoil some of the surprises that occur.
But there are somethings that can be revealed. Yes, there is someone locked in the attic, a typical gothic romance device. The governess, Emilie, does become the object of a tug of war between Huldey and Agatha, but there is no surprise over who wins. Yes there is a rather staid love scene.
But the surprises are also many. The Mastiff goes out on the moors, meets a Moor-Hen (Jessica Love), and has long conversations with her about his existential loneliness and God. She doesn’t always understand.
And there is a murder plot. I won’t reveal who plots it or how comes it out, but it is very bloody though obviously fake blood.
Silverman obviously has a lot to say about power and its uses, loneliness, longing for love, the intoxicating notion of fame, and our tendency to destroy what we must love.
Director Jackson Gay has directed this with a sure hand. She has maintained the right mixture of utter seriousness and sly ironic humor throughout. We believe all the characters are who they are, yet there is a note of “let’s not get carried away” also conveyed. Scenic designer Alexander Woodward has created not only a fine drawing room complete with dour ancestors on the walls but also the desolation of the moors themselves. Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s costumes recreate the rather unattractive clothing and hairstyles of the period. In this play both the lighting by Andrew F. Griffin and the sound (and original music) by Daniel Kluger are very important to convey the sinister mood.
The fine cast manages the balance of reality and irony. Kelly McAndrew as Agatha gives us the proper woman in control who believes in efficiency – she will do whatever is necessary and does not flinch at exercising her power. She knows how to intimidate and bully. Birgit Huppuch as Huldey gives us the dithering sister who is, as her sister acknowledges, not good for very much. She lives with her delusions of literary greatness.
Miriam Silverman gives us a Jane Eyre-like figure. She is demure and proper, and puzzled at what is going on but then moves from compliant to confident and in charge.
Hannah Cabell plays the maid or maids; it is never clear whether there is one or two, with
sly disrespect. She knows all too well what is going on and is determined to get what she wants.
Jeff Biehl is the Mastiff with a sense of his own mortality. He may, to some extent, be the conscience of the play until he too gives in to nature. Jessica Love as the Moor Hen suggests the flightiness of a bird; she may be lonely but she also enjoys the freedom of flight.
The Moors is an enjoyable evening’s entertainment; well acted, well directed, with good production values. Plus, you will think about it after. Just don’t pick up a gothic novel soon after seeing it.
It is at Yale Rep’s University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven, through Saturday, Feb. 20. For tickets contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 203-432-1234.