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A CurtainUp Review
The Moors

I think, Miss Vandergaard, you know very little about women and what they are capable of. That is not your fault. You have been handed limitations, which you accepted. Perhaps accepting them was your fault. Either way, in your time here on the moors, perhaps you will become more knowledgeable.
— Agatha, explaining how in the moors where she and her sister live, there is no weakness and thus leave her surrounded with a "merciless strength"
Hannah Cabell and Birgit Huppuch (Photo: Joe Chei)
There's no denying that Jen Silverman is an adventurous playwright. In The Moors she dares to risk comparisons to her chief inspirational source — the Bronte sisters' Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

In addition to rejiggering elements of those iconic novels so that the mad woman in the attic is the Bronte sisters' brother Branwell, Silverman has cooked up a literary stew of genres that includes gothic romance with an absurdist twist and heavy dose of magic realism. She's even worked in Lizzie Borden who achieved fame not with a pen, like the Brontes, but with an axe.

The production now at the off-Broadway Duke on 42nd is a rather curious transfer of the Yale Rep premiere. Hannah Cabell as the play's smartest character, the conniving maid (switching with the flip of her cap between scullery maid Marjory and parlor maid Mallory) is reprising her role; so is Birgitt Huppuch as the gentle, diary obsessed Huldey). But all the other roles have been re-cast. What's more, the current production is staged by a different director and design team.

The new stage team may sound as if more theatrical bells and whistles have been added for the play's Big Apple run. As it happens, the opposite is the case. Except for a lot of stage fog, the set for the 1840s manor in which two spinster sisters and their dog live, which my Connecticut colleague cited as a major asset in his review , is now a bare bones set. A sideboard and a couple of chairs are the only scenic props, unless you count the lighted side areas used by director Mike Donahue to rather awkwardly have characters enter and exit the main playing area.

Still, Silverman's genre bashing stylistic mishmash is indeed clever and intermittently amusing given its flavorful seasoning of feminism, sadism, plus meditations on happiness and non-traditional love. Linda Powell and Andrew Garman, who were both outstanding as an Evangelical couple in Lucas Hnath's The Christians are outstanding replacements in the quite different roles Silverman has written them: Powell now plays the austere bossy Agatha, older sister to the gentler, diary keeping Huldey (Cabell); and Garman is reasonably convincing as the giant anthropomorphic Mastiff who belonged to the sisters' late father.

Since animals talking and played by humans are not my favorite thing, the most surprising thing about The Moors for me was that I found the conversations between Garman's Mastiff and the Moor-Hen (Teresa Avia Lim) who instead of being served for supper fell at the Mastiff's feet, were less confusing than some of the other interchanges.

The play's opening sets up the links to all those elements it has to embrace— with Agatha and Huldey welcoming Emilie (Chasten Harmon), the governess arriving to tutor their brother's child. Thanks to plenty of foreshadowing remarks, it's hardly surprising that this child never appears. Also mysteriously absent is Mr. Rochester — oops, I mean Branwell— who hired Emilie via letters that seem to have made her ready to fall in love with him.

Despite the setting in the isolated mansion and the period costumes, this is a contemporary American gothic. Thus no one speaks with a British accent. And the romances that develop pair off the women with each other. I'll leave it to you to guess which of these women spins completely out of control and into Lizzie Borden mode.

As the bleak isolation of the moors produced some of literature's most memorable characters Ms. Silverman also uses it to have her spin-off characters struggle to overcome their weaknesses, understand who they are and form relationships. However, though I realize this is meant to be a satire, Silverman seemed to work overtime to make us laugh a lot. Consequently, while the cast is admirable, ultimately The Moors is too clever by half to be as successful a riff on Gothic literature as it aims to be.

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The Moors by Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue
Cast: Hannah Cabell (Marjorie), Andrew Garman (Mastiff), Chasten Harmon (Emilie), Birgit Huppuch (Huldey), Teresa Avia Lim (Moor-Hen), Linda Powell (Agatha).
Set Design: Dane Laffrey
Light Design: Jen Schriever
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Composer: Daniel Kluger
Stage Manager: Hannah Woodward,
Running Time: 140 minutes, no intermission
Playwrights Realm at The Duke on 42nd Street 229 W 42nd St
From 2/27/17; opening 3/13/17; closing 3/25/17.

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