"The Moors" at Yale Rep

By David A. Rosenberg

Clocking in at an intermissionless 95 minutes, Jen Silverman’s melodramatic comedy, “The Moors,” is as adventurous and stylish as it is strained and vapid. The play, having its world premiere at Yale Rep, contains lines no playwright ought even to consider: “It’s boring” or “Maybe we can be quiet for a little while.”

Sending up several genres at once -- gothic romance, out-of-date acting styles, theater of the absurd -- Silverman sets her work in the present although the dress is 19th-century. Combining bits and pieces of the Brone clan, Lizzie Borden, “Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “Waiting for Godot” and “The Maids,” the playwright meshes feminism and sadism, while showing the limits of game-changing love.

In a manor house adjoining England’s moors live two sisters, hard-bitten Agatha and soft-headed Huldey, a governess named Emilie and a sour, conniving maid who’s sometimes Marjory of the scullery, sometimes Mallory of the parlor. Add a pair of talking animals: a huge, philosophical, whiskers-askew Mastiff and a not-too bright Moor-Hen.

Instead of putting a crazy aunt in the attic, Agatha will wall up unseen brother Branwell for good after he commits one final sex act. Agatha and Emilie share more than friendship, as Agatha declares, “A woman desires results.” Huldey, yearning for fame and notoriety, anxiously encourages anyone to read her diary in which every day is recorded as unhappy. Meanwhile, on the unrestraining moors, Mastiff and Moor-Hen get closer and closer in affection and trust.

The moors themselves bring out the savagery inherent in a setting described as “bleak, loveless, gray, cold and awful,” which may just as well describe what happens when love enters the picture. While the humans know they must show strength, the animals overcome their fear of each other, trying to understand who they are in the sight of God and how they may form a relationship. It’s that battle between intellect and emotions, reason and instinct, again.

Or maybe not. “The Moors” is not a paragon of clarity. Rather, it seems to be several ideas raggedly stitched together.

Yet it’s not without its off-beat pleasures and is, at the very least, being given as fine a production as possible, from Alexander Woodward’s comforting/menacing sets to Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s period costumes to Andrew F. Griffin’s mood-enhancing lighting design. Daniel Kluger’s sound design and original music are akin to what Universal Pictures might have used for its horror films.

Director Jackson Gay evokes pitch-perfect characterizations from her cast: Jeff Biehl as the scruffy Mastiff, Jessica Love as the befuddled Moor-Hen, Birgit Huppuch as the ditsy Huldey, Kelly McAndrew as the imperious Agatha, Miriam Silverman as the scheming Emilie and a wonderful Hannah Cabell instantaneously switching from Marjory to Mallory and back again.

Did the director work as assiduously with the dramaturg, Maria Ines Marques, as she did with her design team and actors? As the Moor-Hen says, putting down existential interpretations, “I am something that flies, that’s all. It freaks me out when you get intense.”

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