Dallas — You don’t have to be a fan of the brilliant Bronte sisters to laugh your knickers off at Jen Silverman’s The Moors, fogging up the arena stage at Theatre Three, just in time for a potent autumnal dose of loaded lines and multi-function candlesticks. Still, it helps to at least have read Wuthering Heights, Emily’s brooding Gothic romance set in the desolate landscape surrounding the Bronte siblings’ home.
Director Garret Storms sustains a delightfully spooky-tense atmosphere in which female imaginations go wildly savage in the confines of a lonely mansion in the English lowlands in the early 19th century. Moreover, the stifled desires and hissing threats familiar to Bronte readers all happen on Ian Loveall’s clever set design: a huge square of artificial turf cut through by parquet floors and plump Victorian furniture. Add a whip-sharp cast, outfitted in Aaron Patrick DeClerk’s richly textured period costumes, who elicit fear, trembling and helpless laughter, and you have a wonderfully witty spoof of repressed female libido gone hilariously perverse in 90 minutes flat.
Silverman bites off bleeding chunks of the biography and literary style of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte to celebrate and tease both their fiery, feminist independence and their ardent, famously romantic language.
On Silverman’s acre of the moor, Emilie, a pretty governess (archly vamping Vanessa DeSilvio) enters the mansion’s sinister female subculture on a windy night, where a lonely Mastiff (melancholy, poetic Thomas Ward in country tweeds) lies beside the hearth. Haughty spinster Agatha (a steely, comically butch Emily Scott Banks) is all over her chronically confused little sister Huldey (a pliant, comically twitchy Mikaela Krantz) for her awful hair-do. That’s what sisters are for, right? Inscrutable Agatha instantly consumes inquisitive Emilie with her eyes, and then tells the young girl that the dog “will devour your face.” Fair warning.
Dauntless Emilie is seething with passion for Bramwell (the real name of the Bronte sisters’ depressive brother), the mysterious member of the household whose fevered letters urged her to come to the moody moors. But exactly where and who is this erotic poet? Could the letter-writer be an attic prisoner, like Rochester’s insane wife in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre?
The family servant (sulky, threatening Jenny Ledel) is called Marjory or Mallory, depending on whether she’s scrubbing the floors or serving dinner. Ledel’s punk-tough scullery maid comically declares a parlor to be a parlor or a dining hall, as scenes change. Nobody dares argue. Agatha tells Emilie of the danger and “merciless strength” of the moors, and smoldering Emilie confesses how powerfully she is drawn to the wind-blown isolated manor.
Ward’s huggable insomniac Mastiff, meanwhile, is undergoing his own existential crisis in the garden, contemplating the meaning of his name spelled backwards, and falling head over paws for an injured Moor-Hen (bonneted and brisk Felicia Bertch). This doomed affair is a comic highlight of the production. Ward’s soulful dog wrings himself out describing his profound feeling of loneliness to his beloved, to which Bertch’s pragmatic fowl, no birdbrain, replies, “You’re hungry.” What’s a guy to do in such an outrageously Brontefied world?
Meanwhile, back in the drawing room (or whatever), thoroughly thwarted Huldey is reading over her humdrum diary of daily unhappiness, a comic poke at Anne Bronte’s tantalizing but often mundane journal of sisterly grievances. Ledel’s suddenly collaborative maid enters the scene, spurring pouting Huldey to withering new heights of diarist derring-do.
Krantz’s famed-crazed diarist Huldey delivers a frighteningly funny performance piece armed only with household tools and a genetic flare for dramatic bipolar shifts, swinging the plot in a shocking direction. Actually, make that semi-shocking. After all, we are out on those bleak, dismal, haunted, windy, ruined English moors, and some things just never change.