"The Moors" at Yale Repertory Theatre

By Brooks Appelbaum

You know a play is in trouble when, with a cast of four women, a mastiff (the marvelous Jeff Biehl) and a Moor-Hen (the sweetly skittish Jessica Love), the only ones you care about at all are the animals. Such is the situation with Jen Silverman’s The Moors, which Yale Repertory Theatre is giving its world premiere. By referencing the Bronte sisters’ biography, and adding in plot points from Jane Eyre, Silverman’s play purports to be a sly satire of fame’s seductive pull, existential despair, and the struggles faced by 19th century women writers. However, satire requires wit, and -- ideally -- warmth, and here neither is in evidence.

Jackson Gay, who directed last year’s delightful production of These Paper Bullets! has cast terrific actors in every role and worked with scenic designer Alexander Woodward to create a beautifully evocative set that does more storytelling than the dialogue. However, no amount of acting or directing skill can overcome the glacial pace of Silverman’s script.

Moreover, her plot offers a superficially childish take on themes that have been explored elsewhere far more deeply, engagingly or both. One need only look to the Brontes’ novels themselves; to later novels inspired by the Brontes’ (such as The Wide Sargasso Sea); to many fine film adaptations; to Charlotte’s voluminous correspondence; and to biographies that gracefully balance scholarship with first-rate story telling. Oh, and let’s not forget Charles Ludlam’s theatrical masterpiece of satire, The Mystery of Irma Vep.

Let’s also not forget, however, that The Moors showcases the work of six fine actors, each of which serves his or her character beautifully. Jeff Biehl, as The Mastiff and Jessica Love, as the Moor-Hen, are perfectly convincing physically, in part due to the expert costumes by Fabian Fidel Aguilar. Additionally, though, these actors draw you into the mental and emotional world of their original and winning characters.

As the elder and hardened sister, Agatha, Kelly McAndrew wrings all the creepy suspense she can from her thinly conceived role. Birgit Huppuch, as the fame-crazed, talent-free sister, Huldey, has the thankless task of annoying us for the first three-quarters of the play and then hurling herself far over the top in the penultimate scene. She succeeds. As Emilie, Miriam Silverman demonstrates charismatic charm; like McAndrew, she brings as much depth and warmth to her part as is possible.

Hannah Cabell, who was last seen at Yale Rep in David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette and in Rinne Groff’s Compulsion, comes close to stealing the show, as the maid Marjory, in large part because of her steely skill. In addition, though, Silverman seems to have become especially fascinated by this character, and one wishes the playwright had constructed the story more completely around her.

In addition to the fine sets and costumes, lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin and sound and original music designer Daniel Kluger have done much to make the world of this play mysterious, frightening, and beautiful. One only wishes that Yale Repertory Theatre had chosen a different playwright and a different script. If the Brontes’ circumstances are to inspire yet another work of art, these women deserve something as truly dangerous, uncanny, and liberating as the actual moors.

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