Mania on the Moors
By Geary Danihy
There’s an old saying that goes: “Don’t judge a play by its first ten minutes.” Well, maybe it isn’t an old saying, but in the case of The Moors, which is receiving its world premier at Yale Repertory Theatre, it is certainly true. This sly, slow-to-develop satire on a certain sub-genre of Victorian literature (both the books themselves and the authors -- mainly female -- who wrote them) by Jen Silverman begins as a parlor drama and ends, well, tumbling into Grand Guignol with just a touch of Theater of the Absurd. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who stay the course of 90 minutes or so, there will be rewards.
The play is set in 19th century England in a rather forbidding house on the moors. Yes, it’s Hound of the Baskerville’s territory, Wuthering Heights land, and the bleak landscape casts a pall over the house’s inhabitants. There is Agatha (Kelly McAndrew), a stern lady given to speaking in a commanding monotone, and her sister Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), something of a flibbertigibbet who is obsessed with keeping a diary (which basically consists of entries stating “I am unhappy.”). Then there are the servants -- actually just one servant who takes on different names, including Marjory (Hannah Cabell), depending on her task, illness or state of pregnancy. There is also a dog, a Mastiff (Jeff Biehl), purported to be extremely vicious, who will wander out onto the moors to discover an injured Moor-Hen (Jessica Love). There is also a brother who may or may not be dead. We never see the brother.
Into this rather dark and dreary world enters a governess, Emilie (Miriram Silverman), who has ostensibly been hired by the brother to...well...there are no children to oversee, or “govern,” so her purpose is, at least at the beginning, somewhat vague. However, almost all will be explained in time (I think).
The play opens in a dark-paneled drawing room decorated with many stuffed animals and portraits of, one must assume, long-dead ancestors (the period-perfect design courtesy of Alexander Woodward). The two sisters sit in opposing chairs and chit-chat. Actually, Huldey chit-chats while Agatha responds in monosyllables. If the playwright’s intention was to establish that these two ladies lead lives of dreary boredom, then she succeeds wildly, for after several minutes of the banal conversation you might begin to wonder if you will be able to make it through the evening without dozing off. Director Jackson Gray has made this opening as low-key as possible, with Huldey hitting the same note over and over again (Yes, we get that she is ditzy and desperately desires her sister to surreptitiously delve into her oh-so-personal diary) and Agatha responding as if she is a graduate of the Morticia Addams School of Drama. What the hell is going on here?
Well, this is a satire of a sort, and one of the things being satirized is the style of acting that flourished in 19th-century parlor (excuse me -- “parlour”) dramas. It may be initially somewhat painful to watch, but once you realize what’s going on there’s a spark of interest, which is almost snuffed out with the first scene on the moors (the panels that create the drawing room slide off stage left and right to reveal the blighted landscape), for we now seem to have stumbled into Waiting-for-Godot-land as the Mastiff pontificates on loneliness and despair. He will soon be joined by the Moor-Hen (she has trouble landing and has injured her leg), and they will have quasi-philosophical discussions about God, life and relationships. Okay, we’re back again into what-the-hell-is-going-on mode.
There are several things going on. The first is the plight of the 19th-century female writer, often forced to publish her work under a male pseudonym. Then there is the satirizing of many of the plot lines of now famous Victorian novels, including that of Jane Eyre, many of said novels written by females. Then there is the setting itself, the moors, latched onto by the Romantics as an antidote to the classical style and Victorian mores that stultified. Yes, the moors are wild and ruled by nature’s fierce laws, but there is also a certain freedom that can be found here, a freedom to allow emotions to hold sway.
As the evening progresses and the scene shifts back and forth between the drawing room and the moors, the sliding panels become fewer, allowing the moors to slowly dominate as feral passions take control of the characters. Don’t want to be a spoiler, but the penultimate scene delivers on everything that Silverman and Gay have been building towards. It may not answer all questions, and may be a bit off-putting for the squeamish, but it is certainly satisfying (and, in a perverse way, quite funny).
The cast is charged with creating Victorian stereotypes (if a Mastiff and a Moor-Hen can said to be stereotypes) that they gradually break out of as the playwright slowly reveals her intentions. This binds McAndrew to a certain style of line delivery that, at times, must have her fingers twitching, for emotionally her character (think Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca) ends where she started. Her character is the essence of icy control and Silverman has given the actor few opportunities to shed the mantle. Such is not the case with Cabell, who transforms from servile scullery maid to manipulative accomplice, and, most especially, Huppuch, who morphs Huldey into a wildly manic character who dominates the end of the evening with a song that -- well, that would be giving too much away.
The Moors deals with many things, some more successfully than others. As satire, it is not as arch as it might have been, and the opening scenes need to convey a bit more of a hint as to how the audience is supposed to respond. Some of the Mastiff-Moor-Hen scenes generate little more than a “Yeah-yeah-Yada-yada” response. And yet, the production, replete with killer sound design and mood enhancing music by Daniel Kluger, delivers a certain degree of satisfaction. Slow to unfold and perhaps opting for subtle over sharp, The Moors remains intriguing.
The Moors runs through February 20. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org