Though the 19th century was hardly a feminist era in England, it did produce some of literature’s brightest stars: the Brontë sisters. Penning such iconic classics as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, the sisters – Charlotte, Emily, and Anne – wrote their own success in a patriarchal age. Now, playwright Jen Silverman has taken a cue from the Brontës with The Moors, an unsettling dark comedy that lets its 19th century women be the oppressors – not the oppressed.
Directed by Mike Donahue for The Playwrights Realm, The Moors tells the tale of Emilie (Chasten Harmon), a cheery governess who arrives at an isolated estate in the foreboding English countryside that immediately calls to mind the Brontës’ ominous settings. Emilie has been lured to the house by romantic letters from Branwel (named for the Brontës’ brother), but he is nowhere to be found when she arrives. Instead, Emilie moves in with sisters Agatha (Linda Powell) and Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), along with the maid Mallory/Marjory (Hannah Cabell) and the production’s sole male: Mastiff (Andrew Garman), the family dog. Far from shying away, these headstrong women demand power and to be seen on their own terms – even if, it’s soon revealed, appearances can be deceiving.
Much like Emilie when she arrives to the creepy estate, this isn’t a production that allows the audience to settle in comfortably. The show carries a lingering sense of foreboding all the way through, while throwing in enough absurdist elements to keep the audience from ever truly accepting the reality we’re being presented onstage. The foreboding mansion always seems to be keeping more secrets at bay, and the show tries to pack wide extremes of broad comedy – complete with a blood-soaked rock ballad – and anguished morbidity into its 1 hour 40 minute running time.
In The Moors, though, this sense of unpredictability and danger is a source of power and strength for its characters, even if it often comes to be their downfall in the end. “When I’m out here, I’m surrounded by merciless strength,” Agatha says to Emilie about the moors, a “comforting” place for her. As Emilie asks if Agatha realizes the unforgiving wilderness might devour her, Agatha has a simple response: “Yes, absolutely.”
The Playwrights Realm production, too, derives both its strengths and hindrances from its unsettled narrative. The production’s blend of witty absurdism, boisterous humor, and an unsettling whiff of the macabre sweeps the audience along while always keeping something unexpected around the corner. But the production also gets bogged down by the wide extremes and heady themes it tries to achieve, and the frequent impositions of whimsy and camp, while entertaining, at times feel like whimsy for whimsy’s sake. The show also tries to attain another sense of contrast by juxtaposing the 19th century setting and the dialogue’s modern-day sensibilities and humor; however, the minimalistic scenic design (by Dane Laffrey), which hints at the era rather than truly illustrating it, doesn’t quite allow this intended contrast to stick. Rather than taking the opportunity to offer a subversive twist on a repressive time, the production wears its 19th century setting like a thin façade.
As with the moors the characters live amongst, there’s beauty in its tangles nevertheless. Aided by a talented cast – Huppuch’s gleefully unhinged performance being a particular highlight – The Moors offers a thoughtful subversion of gender roles, presenting the possibilities – and pitfalls – of power in a way that challenges and entertains, even if it doesn’t always quite coalesce. Much like the characters that populate it, Silverman’s play is complicated and messy – but shows why it, too, should be seen.