My mother loves period movies. From multi-hour Jane Austin adaptations to stiff-collared BBC dramas that get negative-star ratings on Netflix, if it has a scullery maid, she’ll watch it. That trait wasn’t passed down to me as I find those kinds of things cinematic Ambien. Unless that scullery maid is played by a naked Mila Kunis, I’ll pass. So I was a bit skeptical walking into the world premiere of “The Moors” at the Yale Repertory Theatre. From it’s “inspired by the Brontes” marketing to the in-program essay on the connection between the English moors and gothic literature, it may seem like Jen Silverman’s play, directed by Jackson Gay, is “Masterpiece Theater” on stage.
But very quickly, it becomes apparent we’re in for something totally different. The dollhouse-like set (rendered beautifully by Alexander Woodward) is decorated more like a dusty antique store than Downton Abbey, with second-hand portraits and taxidermy animals lining the walls. The two spinster sisters (Birgit Huppuch and Kelly McAndrew) speak in American accents and with an unpretentious, witty repartee reminiscent of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Their huge mastiff is played by a man in a shaggy overcoat (Jeff Biehl) who, when he isn’t lounging lazily in the parlor, waxes philosophical about love and loneliness either by himself or with an injured moor-hen (Jessica Love). The maid (Hannah Cabell), who changes identities depending on what room she’s in, is pregnant with an unwanted child and sick with typhus. But, really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg in this smart, often hilarious and occasionally frustrating play.
The sisters in question are not named Charlotte and Emily but Agatha and Huldey. Agatha (McAndrew) is manipulative and no-nonsense; Huldey (Huppuch) is depressed and desperate for attention. Everything is bleak and dull on the moors, with Agatha spending her days knitting and bossing around her sister, who writes incessantly in her diary, dreaming of being a famous writer despite the fact that no one wants to read her work. Entering into this madness is Emilie (Miriam Silverman, bringing to mind a restrained Vanessa Bayer), a chipper governess from London. Who exactly she is there to govern and whether the master of the house, Mr. Branwell, is even alive is another matter.
Inventive sets, handsome costumes and confident performances aside, the success or failure of “The Moors” really rests on Silverman’s script. Like all good gothic lit, it grabs your attention immediately and doles out just enough of the manner’s secrets at a time to keep you guessing. The dialogue is sharp and clever, rife with deadpan, dark humor and dashes of Christopher Durang whimsy. Beneath the laughs is also a dense rumination on sexual politics, power dynamics and the immense power of recognition. This is a play written, directed and starring women (with the exception of Biehl who quite literally plays a dog) and the theme of subverted gender roles runs at its very core.
But even at an intermissionless 90-minutes, “The Moors” feels overstuffed and meandering at times, as if a tight 50-minute one-act was expanded to fill a full-length timeslot. This is especially true in the scenes between the mastiff and the moor-hen which, despite their cleverness, come off as repetitive and overwritten. In a play all about secrets and diverted morals, these scenes are perhaps a bit too on the nose and end up feeling like an anthropomorphic twist on “Almost, Maine.”
Unlike the titular landscape, which is repeatedly said to be harsh and boring, “The Moors” is ultimately quite clever and a lot of bloody fun. Silverman is playing with some fascinating ideas, twisting the time-honored themes and tropes of works like “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” into a distinctly 21st century female-driven play. The performances, especially from Huppuch and Biehl, are outstanding and the simple set is used to great effect. But the place and the play do one have thing in common. With both, you won’t want to spend too much time visiting.