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Jen Silverman, a rising playwright with a restless and fertile mind, has been tinkering in the “wild workshop” of the Brontë family. That phrase comes from Charlotte Brontë, who was referring to the creation of the novel “Wuthering Heights” by her sister Emily.From Vulture:
But it could easily be applied to the brooding fictional universes forged by any of the writing sisters (Anne is the third) and the very real, isolated environment in which they lived and worked. That’s the storm-swept terrain into which Ms. Silverman has blithely ventured in “The Moors,” which opened on Monday night in an alternately intriguing and irritating production at the Duke on 42nd Street. [...]
In “The Moors,” the latest offering from the invaluable Playwrights Realm, she occupies the land haunted by Heathcliff in a spirit that might be described as empathetic satire.
Not that Heathcliff would dare to set foot in the 19th-century parsonage inhabited by the forbidding Agatha (a deliciously stern Linda Powell), her giddy sister, Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), and their rustic scullery maid, Marjory (Hannah Cabell, who might have stepped out of “Cold Comfort Farm”). Brutal, lusty and deranged behavior is woman’s work in “The Moors,” unless you count the exertions of the family dog, Mastiff (Andrew Garman), who inconveniently falls in love with a Moor-Hen (Teresa Avia Lim).
There are rumors of the existence of a brother in the house, one Branwell, who shares his name with the most self-destructive of the Brontë siblings. But he seems to have been consigned to the out-of-sight status of Mr. Rochester’s wife, the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.”
Which is too bad for Emilie (Chasten Harmon), an independent-minded governess (wouldn’t you know) who shows up chez Agatha, having fallen in love with the mysterious Branwell through a poetic correspondence. Will she find the man of her dreams? What if he turns out to be a woman? Will the Mastiff and the Moor-Hen be able to overcome their biological incompatibilities?
These questions tease and tickle throughout “The Moors,” which as you may have gathered has a high whimsy quotient. But they never acquire much momentum in Mike Donahue’s production, which is performed by a multiethnic cast in period costumes (by Anita Yavich) and with contemporary (American) accents. [...]
Dane Laffrey’s abstract set, which places Victorian furniture on a bleak black-graveled surface amid much lung-congesting stage fog, suggests Beckett as much as Brontë. This may be fitting for a play that finds an existentially challenged Mastiff trying to justify the ways of God to dog. It also keeps the audience at a quizzical distance and underscores the feeling of the work as an academic game.
Sometimes the archly Victorian dialogue, especially as spoken by the journal-keeping, fame-hungry Huldey, can grate on the nerves. But if “The Moors” sometimes has the discouraging effect of new chalk squeaking across a blackboard, what it ultimately spells out is worth reading.
By that, I mean Ms. Silverman’s sense of how a stark and lonely landscape might indeed be a fertile petri dish for enterprising imaginations, turned in on themselves and longing for connection. Diaries and letters, those staples of 19th-century literature, become tools of deception and delusion that conjure worlds of their own.
“The Moors” may sometimes feel sloppy, but it’s smart. Watching it is a bit like having a conversation with an ardent and intelligent Brontë devotee, whose passion almost matches that of the pen-wielding sisters who inspired it. (Ben Brantley)
One day in the mid-19th century, Emilie Vandergaard (Chasten Harmon) arrives at an ancient manse on the English moors, where two spinster sisters, Agatha and Huldeygard, await her. (You might expect Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence to play the sisters, but instead it’s Linda Powell and Birgit Huppuch.) It seems that after a flirtatious correspondence with their brother, Branwell — or was it Branwell? — Emilie has been hired as a governess. In any case, Branwell is nowhere to be found. Also not in evidence is the child Emilie is meant to govern. Witless Huldeygard and severe Agatha at first offer no explanation for these absences, nor for the fact that the scullery maid, Marjory, is the same person as the parlor maid, Mallory. (One of them is pregnant and the other has typhus; both are played by Hannah Cabell.) Instead, Huldeygard indulges her mania for journaling, while Agatha lets simmer her secret plan for domination. Let’s just say that the dissolute Branwell, apparently named for the Brontës’ own dissolute brother, is imprisoned in the attic, like Mrs. Rochester of Jane Eyre.From Theatermania:
Fans of that Charlotte Brontë novel will also recognize Huldeygard and Agatha as cartoons of its moor-bound Rivers sisters; those who prefer Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights may detect in Mallory/Marjory a reference to its ambiguous servant subplot. The typhus threat, here played for giggles, could come from any of the sisters’ books, or their lives, as could the characters’ obsession with Byronic ideals. Huldeygard imagines being a famous murderer, but only partly fulfills her dream. Agatha, a manipulative lesbian straight out of The Well of Loneliness — I’m surprised the manse isn’t called Radclyffe Hall — gets further with her dark and glamorous arrogance, but not quite all the way.
With its focus on women’s lives as complete unto themselves, The Moors not only passes the Bechdel test but crushes it; men are barely mentioned except as lunatics and sperm donors. The only male figure onstage, in fact, is the sisters’ sad mastiff, who has purple thoughts and privilege issues. (He is played by Andrew Garman almost as an English gentleman, in scratchy tweeds from designer Anita Yavich.) Along with a wounded moorhen (Teresa Avia Lim, in flouncy pants and capelet), the dog enacts the traditional male-female drama that The Moors otherwise abjures: the one in which marriage is the solution to a man’s problems, if rarely to a woman’s. The counterpoint fails, though, partly due to its reluctance to unpack relevant issues like free will and animal nature. But it mainly fails because, despite Garman’s dogged commitment and Lim’s avian charm, the setup is too twee to support its own weight.
The human story fares little better. To say it is imaginatively conceived is not to suggest it is fascinating or instructive. (Other people’s fantasies are usually dull.) Yes, we are interested in the question of what women might be if truly liberated from patriarchal domination, and, yes, it seems reasonable to explore that question in the context of a Brontëan wilderness in which the savagery of the environment produces savage heroines. Certainly Dane Laffrey’s scenic design, and especially Jen Schriever’s gorgeous billows of light amid the pumped-in fog, help produce the necessary sense of dislocation and grandeur. But the play keeps undermining itself with falseness on the one hand and weak attempts at humor on the other. Repurposing an old genre’s clichés to serve new ideas does not in itself do anything to revive their vigor or make them delightful. And the addition of clichés of more recent vintage — Huldeygard is for some reason given a “crazy rock power ballad” to express her inner life — just seems desperate.
You can’t really blame the four actors playing humans for not finding a tone that works, nor even the director, Mike Donahue, who staged a galvanizing, totally nonsatirical new play called Homos: Or Everyone in America last year. The fault is in the conception of the story, which wants to have its camp and eat it too. The result may be something new, but it’s the opposite of eye-opening. (Jesse Green)
Silverman and director Mike Donahue have created an atmosphere in The Moors that is at once mysterious, menacing, and savagely funny. Dane Laffrey's set design is simple enough, with two stately chairs and a sideboard to represent the parlor and (in a Monty Pythonesque joke) every other room in the house. But it also allows for the spewing of almost ever-present fog, which billows from beneath and through holes in the large back wall. Combined with Jen Schriever's eerie lighting, the fog becomes intimately connected to the storytelling, symbolizing the confused haze that Emilie wanders through as she negotiates the unfamiliar terrain of her new situation.Time Out gives it 2 stars out of 5:
A quirky subplot runs through The Moors. It involves a dog, called Mastiff (played with dry humor by Andrew Garman), who falls in love with a Moor-hen (a sweetly innocent yet unexpectedly savvy Teresa Avia Lim). Blinded by the fog, she has crashed into the house and injured herself. Mastiff, neglected by the sisters, finds respite from his loneliness and existential dread while Moor-hen recuperates by his side. But when his needy side gets the better of him, Moor-hen starts to have second thoughts about continuing their relationship. It's a situation that many will relate to, and its final scene is certainly memorable, but this sidebar of a story, despite fine performances, feels tacked on, with little thematic relation to the main plot.
The central story of intrigue and double-crossing goes on autopilot for a while as Agatha and Emilie's relationship congeals. Yet Powell, dressed in an august, gorgeous, period-appropriate dark dress (brilliantly designed costumes by Anita Yavich), always commands the stage, while Harmon grabs our attention as her initially withdrawn character reveals a scheming side too. Cabell gets loads of laughs as the grumpy, pregnant scullery maid with typhus, and Huppuch plays the Jan Brady-like Huldey with delicious camp, making an entrance in Act 2 with curls and a pink dress as though she could be the lead in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane Eyre?
Despite a few drowsy moments and an odd fantasy sequence near the end, The Moors delights with its insightful and subversive edginess, toppling the male-oppressed milieus of the Brontës and taking strong, passionate female characters to new heights. (Pete Hempstead)
Jen Silverman's misfire The Moors does, in truth, take aim at an interesting target. This black comedy unfolds in the thick of the English literary landscape, deep in the territory of High Victorian imagination. It's a spoof on the Brontë sisters, who are (bless their corsets and side curls) ripe for it. Silverman likes their atmosphere, but she's not wild about the baked-in man-woman stuff, so she queers the sisters' Romantic style. While the playwright deploys the standard pseudo-Gothic elements (governesses, attics, hectic lusts, etc.), she uses them for a different set of small-r romantic fantasies—ones in which boys are forcibly sidelined.We are not leaving the moors just yet as The Yorkshire Post interviews Amanda Owen, known as the Yorkshire Shepherdess:
The plot's a kind of Victorian gumbo. The stern, rather terrifying Agatha (Linda Powell) has sent for a governess, but when Emilie (Chasten Harmon) arrives at Agatha’s spooky estate, she finds no child to care for. There is, however, an unstable sister Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), a grumpy housemaid Marjory (Hannah Cabell) and somebody wicked has been stashed upstairs. Silverman wants to invoke the mystery of the titular Yorkshire fens, where the soul can be “hewn,” as Charlotte Brontë once wrote, “in a wild workshop.” But the play keeps sabotaging itself. When it tries to be mystical, its jokiness undoes it; when it tries to be warm and silly, the story's fog of cruelty chills the air. The play's lowest moments are—as is often the case these days—forced injections of magic realism. The house's dog (Andrew Garman) has fallen in love with a moor hen (Teresa Avia Lim), and the two anguish about her desire to fly away. Get it? This is such lazy symbolism. If I could wave a wand and make one dramatic trend disappear, it would be all such junk-grade whimsy. Let's put it this way: if an animal is talking in your piece, you better be goddamn Bulgakov.
Silverman's best work is in her imagined setting, a Gormenghast that folds in on itself like an Escher drawing. Her script calls for a strange house in which all the rooms are somehow always the parlor, and the maid keeps switching identities. Since she's written an atmospheric, a better production might bring out more elusive qualities. But the Playwrights Realm version isn't giving us the best look at the piece. Despite some truly great actors in the cast (Huppuch, Garman, Cabell), the tonally confused performances move at a crawl. (Huppuch alone creates a performance so insane that she makes her scenes seem dangerous.)
Director Mike Donahue has also sawn through the central pillar of Silverman's approach. The playwright is playing the juxtaposition game: the play needs a stuffy Victorian sitting room, so the Brontë's genre can be undercut with modern language and the frankly bizarre. But Donahue opts for a stark po-mo set—black astroturf, a looming black plywood wall. Nothing anachronistically “modern” comes as a surprise in such a stark space. Just this one scenic gesture, and the whole world comes un-Moored. (Helen Shaw)
Name your favourite Yorkshire book/author/artist/CD/performer? Apologies for the predictability of this answer – Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.Reading Is My Superpower interviews writer Barbara Cameron:
Who is your favorite book character from childhood? Barbara: It’s got to be Jane Eyre. I first read the book when I was about twelve and fell in love with her spirit and her loving kindness. I wore out several copies of that book and loved being able to teach it when I later became a college English instructor. (Carrie)The Lancashire Telegraph features the two boys that will be playing Arthur in the forthcoming production of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Adam Crompton and Ollie Guffogg may be young but they are about to take to a very big stage.Town and Country sounds excited about the broadcast of To Walk Invisible in the US. Keighley News has an article on local spring activities such as those taking place at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. The Telegraph and Argus reports that volunteers are needed 'to help with a clean-up at Haworth churchyard' on Monday March 27.
The pair will be sharing the role of Arthur in a new adaption of Anne Brontë's Tenant of Wildfell Hall at Bolton's Octagon Theatre later this month. (Vanessa Cornall)