“THE MOORS” -- “Heathcliff … where are you?”
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
In case you don’t recognize the name, “Heathcliff” is the wandering, vengeful, lover from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.”The cry, “Heathcliff … where are you?” was a very popular phrase that was made fun of when the black and white film, based on novel, was first produced (during the mid-20th century). I use it here as an opening to my review of Yale Repertory Theatre’s World Premiere of “The Moors,” for good reason.
Like the Bronte novels, this play takes place against the background of the moors -- an untamed, windswept wilderness in Northern England, and except for a male dog, and “Bradwell,”(a brother, who never appears) every character in “The Moors” happens to be female. Also, every motif that was ever referred to in 19th century gothic novels, plus some modern elements taken from the theatre of the absurd, seems to be represented here by playwright, Jen Silverman -- who also happens to be female. There is nothing derogatory about these women, however, when you come to the end of this review, you might realize why a man like Heathcliff and the wailing phrase that pursues him still haunts us.
My statements are not meant to infer that men, or those who may be less familiar with these women’s classics, will not enjoy the play. This is also a satire about the human condition and there’s enough humor, suspense, and bloody fireworks to suit everyone.
So, what do we have here without giving too much away? On the surface, and rendered in English, drawing room-style, we have a struggle for power between two lonely spinster sisters. The older, more domineering sister, bears the typical, period name of “Agatha” (Kelly McAndrew) and true to form, she has banished her brother, Bradwell, to the attic. While she rocks and knits, she is also working on her sibling, “Huldey” (Birgit Huppuch). Like the Bronte sisters, Huldey fancies herself a writer -- only no one wants to read her dismal diaries.
We also have the cynical maid who plays both “The Parlor Servant” and “The Scullery Maid.” Both characters are very hard to distinguish from each other, which appears to be a purposeful gimmick. The program lists only “Marjory” (Hannah Cabell).
Added to the all female or, if you prefer “androgynous” household, is the newly arrived governess, Emilie (Meriam Silverman), and she reminds you of Charlotte Bronte’s innocent, “Jane Eyre.” Emilie has no child to govern, but is soon the object of everyone’s attention -- sexual and otherwise -- depending on how you perceive each situation.
The governess arrives with a heavy trunk containing her belongings, which the maid symbolically dumps in the middle of the parlor. Everyone in this selfish household walks around it while ignoring Emilie’s pleas for help to carry it upstairs. Thus, we meet the dismal humans of this household and the mood is set.
In addition, we have two animal impersonators that brighten the play and give us some relief. We meet the mansion’s lazy dog, which has more human emotions than its indifferent owners. The “Mastiff”(Jeff Biehl), is curiously attracted to a perky, “Moor-Hen”(Jessica Love). The hen is dressed in human garb and her outfit comes complete with laced boots, full skirt, and a peaked, red hat (designed by Fabian Aguilar). The only thing she doesn’t have is a backpack and an umbrella -- just in case the sky should fall. It is quite evident that this Henny-Penny is fearful of the large dog but nonetheless she accepts his protection from the heavy rain.
The scene frequently shifts from the mansion to the animals who converse against the thunder and blitzing atmosphere of the moors” (Sound and original, mood music by Daniel Kluger). Interestingly, in contrast to the humans, the dog and hen’s existential philosophy is rendered in the “theatre of the absurd” style of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
It’s obvious that an unloving household and the menacing moors influence the dog’s more worldly observations. He is concerned about the conventions of human behavior and the uncaring forces of Nature -- which he contemplates is a necessary evil in itself. The flighty hen only knows the pleasures of her adventurous freedom -- words that she gleefully spouts. She instinctively fears being permanently grounded yet, accidentally breaks a leg.
The play is full of irony. We are exposed to the theory that good and evil are relative, and in the end it’s the indifferent forces of Nature that ultimately rule. However, that simple to understand concept is taken for granted as we go about our daily lives. Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of humans are, like Heathcliff’s ghost, shake our fists at each other and the dark universe and wander in a fog while “The Moors” of today try to swallow us.
Hovering over all this philosophy is the unique set design by Alexander Woodward and its dramatic lighting by Andrew Griffin. While its parlor walls are covered with paintings of ancestors, you can also feel the sterility of this lonely, English mansion. Magically, the parlor’s wall panels unfold to reveal another dramatic player, “The Moors” itself.
From the playwright, Jan Silverman, and the director, Jackson Gay, to the acting ensemble and the entire technical crew, this well-conceived, very rewarding work of art is an outstanding example of creative teamwork. Where else can this eclectic piece be more fully appreciated than at Yale Repertory Theatre -- a haven for new forms of artistic expression.
Plays through February 20 Tickets: 203-432-1234
This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” February/2016