Weird mysteries abound when Emilie (Kat Moraros), the new governess, arrives at a huge old mansion on the English moors.
The man of the house, with whom she (rather breathlessly) corresponded, is nowhere to be seen. His spinster sisters Agatha (Megan Cross) and Huldey (Anna Gravél) are tight-lipped about the locations of both their brother and the child Emilie was hired to tend. The maid (Phoebe Parker) is said to be pregnant and named Mallory while she’s in the parlor, but to have typhus and be called Marjory while she’s in the scullery. Someone might be bricked up in the attic. And the landscape outside is impossibly, terrifyingly vast.
“The moors are a savage place,” intones Agatha to Emilie, issuing a part warning, part threat, part challenge. “And we who live here, despite our attempts to cling to a modicum of civilization, we find ourselves often forced to contend with savagery.”
Most central in this savagery, as it turns out, are the needs and means of the heart, in Jen Silverman’s wild, genre-bending, Brontë-riffing dark comedy “The Moors.”
Sally Wood and Keith Powell Beyland direct a bracing, funny, and hypnotic production of “The Moors” at Kendrick & Bloom, in the triumphant return to the stage of Dramatic Repertory Company. Tricky, delicious, and devastating, this production is exactly the kind of show that reminds us of what we’ve been missing while DRC’s been dark.
Emilie’s new household is decrepit and surreal, with dingily antique green furnishings and fringed lamps, and with a parlor that is also introduced as the scullery and Emilie’s bedroom. In the intimate performance space of Kendrick & Bloom (a design and build firm with a social area and small bar), the set is centered to the room’s corner angle – a nicely sharp orientation for a play of barbed lyricism and turns. Draped fabrics in heather, white, and slate, along with pale painted trees, suggest the stark expanse of moors around the mansion and its odd occupants.
Emilie is immediately at sea navigating her bizarre employers, and Moraros gives a superbly calibrated performance as her professional cheer becomes confusion, irritation, offense, and a sense of warming discovery in the spinster sisters’ home.
In Gravél’s and Cross’s bewitching performances, Huldey and Agatha are a study in contrasts. Blonde Huldey, flouncy and beaming in pink ribbons, is a childish ingenue suppressing a morbid side and a desperate need for attention. In Cross’s hands, Agatha is dark, laconic, and merciless. Poised and erect, she moves deliberately, measuring out orders and cruelties with a narcotically deep voice, at once controlling and sensual.
Indeed, Agatha also has desires. In fact, nearly everyone in the play is in some way desperate to be seen, received, or loved. Even the family Mastiff (the excellent Nate Stephenson, tall in layered tweeds, a leather collar, fingerless gloves, and black nail polish) is an emo poet-philosopher suffering from an existential crisis.
“The sky keeps spitting out birds and the birds keep dropping,” he pines skyward, trying to figure out what it means to be in the world.
As the secrets of “The Moors” slowly unfold and entangle, so do all manner of deceit and fraught romance.
Agatha, it turns out, has closely read Emilie’s letters to Bramwell. “I found them quite…telling,” she says, caressing her tongue to the edge of her red lips. Huldey’s obsession with fame and her journal make her nearly hysterical, and so vulnerable to the manipulations of Marjory/Mallory. And the Mastiff has vaulted into love with a bemused Moor-Hen (Hannah Daly), the smallest-brained but quite possibly most sensible creature on these moors.
Dramatic Rep’s shows tend to feature nuanced physical movement, and it comes through in subtle ways in this small, angled space.
As Agatha interrogates Emilie, Marjory stands behind them, underwhelmed, her eyes moving back and forth between them like in a “Scooby-Do” painting. The Mastiff gives a slouch and sigh of beautiful pathos when Agatha orders him, for the umpteenth time, “Down.” Daly inflects her excellent Moorhen with just the slightest birdlike mannerisms – quick wide blinks, a light shaking of the feathers at her head and wrists as she tries to chirp some sense into the poor Mastiff terrified of abandonment.
A great pleasure of “The Moors” is how nimbly and irreverently it changes up its tone, shifts that the ensemble executes with fine stealth and intelligence. One minute the show limns the sisters’ Gothic romance tropes with a deadpan smirk, and the next it swerves to center Parker’s terrific mumblecore Marjory, with her modern “whatever” disdain.
Sometimes the show veers toward absurdist romp, what with all the Marjory/Mallory business and Huldey’s increasingly histrionic forced cheer, and then it delivers a line of startling lyric simplicity: “When I grow old,” sings Emilie to the sisters, looking straight ahead, “I’ll turn to bone or heather.”
There’s a remarkable tensile strength in both script and performances as the play pushes the limits of stylization, then draws back to the bare and the bone.
And after a tender love scene, blood and gore, and a “Chicago”-style musical theater number, where the play leaves us is breathtakingly unsettled: Have we watched a romance? A satire? Tragedy? Comedy?
Whatever this story is, its mysteries aren’t entirely confined to the moors. “The land is bleak and the house is large and there is no language for all the things lurking within us,” Agatha says to Huldey.
Perhaps that sounds like a place that the rest of us sometimes live, too.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Get a ‘Clue,’ see a ‘Superstar,’ have a ‘Cow’
There’s a lot happening on area stages right now. In addition to ongoing shows at Dramatic Repertory Company, Portland Stage Company, Good Theater, and Portland Players, look out for next weekend’s opening of “Clue!” – a mystery hijinks comedy based on the film based on the board game – produced by the University of Southern Maine’s intrepid Theater Department, April 15-24. FMI: https://usm.maine.edu/theatre/2021-2022-usm-theatre-season.
At Mayo Street Arts this weekend, you can hear both poetry and a Biblically-derived rock opera: On Saturday, April 9, John Farrell of Figures of Speech Theatre recites from memory T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece “Four Quartets.” And on Sunday, the virtuoso opera singer and toy-theater maestro David Worobec’s Tophat Productions presents Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” FMI: https://mayostreetarts.org.
And coming to SPACE on Friday is a documentary from the perspective of an English dairy cow named Luma. Andrea Arnold’s nearly wordless film “Cow” follows Luma through her life, struggles, and pleasures, and so invites us into greater empathy with the non-human beings of our world. FMI: https://space538.org/event/cow/.
— Megan Grumbling