Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company opens their season with Jen Silverman’s The Moors—a place where it is a little too remote, and things can really do a number on your head. Silverman, a prolific playwright, also writes fiction, so I was excited to see what this play would address. The Brontë sisters? Governesses gone mad? People locked up in attics? Well, yes, and no.
As director Jennifer Decker says about the Brontë family, “This play is not a biography of their lives or a retelling of any of their works, but an absurd celebration of their genius born of isolation and limited experience with romance.”
The grim and prim parlor setting juxtaposed with a lonely moss-covered rock for the outdoor scenes was perfect, as this play is not about verisimilitude, but evocation—of a place, moments in different time periods, and a sensibility that has had a significant influence on English letters.
Silverman—and Decker, through her excellent direction—tap into the tepid expressions of unhappiness found in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and redefines them in terms of unabashed rage. It’s a clever spin, complete with Victorian costumes, repression, frustrated lesbian romance, and a misfit locked up in the attic. Except this time around it’s a man who is banished: Branwell, who also happened to be the Brontë sisters’ only brother. In real life he succumbed to drinking and drugs (and painting creepy portraits of his sisters). In the play, he is maligned for not being “prudent.”
I love the whole concept of being inspired by these artists and their books, and Silverman comes up with a crazy house of characters. Agatha—quite the cold customer played by Amy Warren—is pretty much hated by everybody who meets her and represents the control freakishness of Heathcliff types who turn abusive out on the moors, where no social services intervene.
Then there’s the help: Marjory/Mallory (Briana Resa), who is simultaneously a scullery maid and a parlor maid and a master manipulator—and part of the infusion of post-modern meta-chic that permeates this play. Lisa Villegas does a great job playing the repressed governess lured to this creepy Yorkshire house through letters; this is part of a rather cruel indictment by Silverman of the power of the epistolary moment, which is already history in our age of email, Facebook, and Instagram. Oh well.
But the best part ever is Lyndsay Sweeney as Huldey, the lonely sister with a diary who endures her bitchy sister, her impertinent maid, and endless loneliness. Every facial expression was spot on, and her comic timing is to be envied. I don’t want to spoil you, but her final moments in the show are ones you won’t forget. This actress really commanded the stage in a strong ensemble cast, and while I was checking out during certain parts of the play, she had my undivided attention in every scene she occupied. Watching Sweeney on the stage is worth the price of the ticket, even if this postmodern pastiche of a play is not your cup of tea.
There is also a subplot with a dog (Jon Harvey) and a moor hen (Samantha Jaramillo), which, I admit, was not my favorite thing in the world. This is not the fault of the actors—I mean, I have no idea how to define a superlative incarnation of a mastiff, and who am I to object to a Moor hen being played as a dumb bunny? But they did provide a psychological gloss to the theme of loneliness in the play, and moments of comic relief. The play opens with a character saying that “the moors are a savage land” and that their lives are basically ones in which they are “forced to contend with savagery.” This animal subplot is an extension of that obsession across this play. We get a lot of free philosophy out of these critters, such as “there is nothing lasting in this moment.” And “This isn’t gravity—it’s love!” And, “Who would I be if I weren’t depressed?”
The Moors has mind games, murderous thoughts, music that will surprise. For some, this is a great example of Theater of the Absurd, a la Ionesco. For others, this play will just seem absurd. But this is what I love about Mildred’s Umbrella—they keep trying new, edgy things, with superlative actors. They aren’t afraid of the wildness of the moors.
Thru Sept. 15. Tickets pay-what-you-can. Mildred’s Umbrella at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose Blvd. 832-463-0409. More info and tickets at mildredumbrella.com.