by Beki Pineda
THE MOORS – Written by Jen Silverman; Directed by Anthony Powell. Produced by the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities (6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada) through May 18. Tickets available at 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.
Looking at the body of work of Jen Silverman playwright, it’s easy to discern a twisted sense of humor and a deep sense of the macabre. Her works are rife with family conflicts, rampant with unusual characters, overflowing with complex situations, and full of dead babies roaming the world, cats that get skinned, and social media gone bad. She must have had so much fun writing this. “Let’s throw in a bird that talks. Oh, wait, how about an evil sister with a big ol’ secret?” THE MOORS jumps wholeheartedly into the world of Gothic horror mashed with comic insight into human (and animal) nature. It is as though the Arvada Center said, “DIARY OF ANNE FRANK is so serious Let’s do something COMPLETELY different.” Boy, is it ever!
A completely inadequate synopsis: Two sisters, Agatha and Huldey, living on the edge of a moor somewhere in England (probably Yorkshire or Dartmoor) sometime in the mid-1800’s (probably) with their mastiff (human-sized) dog and insolent servants invite a governess to join them even though there is no child to teach. She is lured to these desolate surroundings by the promise of a well paying job and the lovely passionate letters she has received from the master of the manor. Agatha the elder exercises absolute dominion over the household while the younger, flighty sister Huldey lives in the world she imagines through her diary. A devious plan has been hatched in the sick mind of Agatha for the perpetuation of their lineage involving Emilie, the governess. In the meantime, the dog has fallen in love with a moorhen with a wounded leg.
Sure, that makes sense, right?? This is truly one of those you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-
it scripts that can’t be explained but can be watched with utter delight. It’s full of unexpected and unanticipated twists and turns, characters that turn on a dime from docile to domineering, and whimsical horror. It illustrates with clarity that pushed hard enough in one direction, people are capable of almost anything and that it is fruitless to fight against human (or animal) natural instincts. Even the birds that crash into the windows to their death throughout the performance are following their natural instinct to fly towards the light. There is so much ambiguity to these situations, this period in history could have been picked at random. Loneliness, unhappiness and the desire for attention is universal and timeless.
A repertory cast completely transformed performs at its highest. Let’s start with the sisters. Emma Messenger performs a la Olivia Colman from THE FAVOURITE in demanding loyalty and subservience. She is a mash-up of Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers and Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher, yet all her own character in the end. Jessica Robblee with all her blonde bubbly-ness and cowed countenance could not be more opposite. Yet she too reveals her dangerous side when given an appealing push toward the spotlight. She is manipulated into action by a glamorous description of the appeal of media attention. Emilie, a sparkling Regina Fernandez, swings into the manor like a cool breeze over a desert but also discovers her darker side, given the circumstances.
The animal’s sub-story is given humanity with Geoffrey Kent who plays a lazy but winsome dog with the heart of a poet. Like all dogs, he longs for someone he can love unconditionally. He thinks he has found it in the person (?) of a moorhen who came crashing out of the sky. Emily Van Fleet made an decidedly graceless entrance as the hen who twisted her leg. It’s very nice to be taken care of by someone as big as the dog, but she can’t get rid of her instinctive fear of a creature so big and so naturally prone to have a different reaction to a helpless food source. She is wise in that instinct.
The surprise of the evening was the sneaky performance by Annie Barbour as Marjory, the scullery maid (or ladies maid, depending on what room you are in). She displays comic gifts not in evidence in her understated performance as Margot in DIARY. She is the one that runs the household, underhandedly guides the sister’s into fulfilling her wishes, and is probably the only one who will come out well in the end. She is making her Colorado debut this season with the rep company and Denver theatre will be just a little brighter if we can persuade her to stay and keep playing quirky roles.
The sketchy outline of a front hall with a significant tower room looming over the action below provides the set, with furniture literally shoved off and on by the maids. The moor is represented by little tufts of ground pulled on and off. Emily Van Fleet is also listed as the Musical Director which may mean she found the sweeping Tara-like music that opens the play or it may mean that she created the melody for the musical number that closes the show. Either way, the music and sound effects were funny and added greatly to the production. Especially the poor doomed birds. The costumes by Meghan Anderson Doyle were stunning and a bold take on Edwardian garb. One brilliant touch was having the MoorHen wear goggles for her entrance and then push them up on her forehead for the remainder of the show. It gave her the big-eyed look of a crow while allowing us to see her expressive face. Again, this show is in rep so you’ll have to check the calendar for dates
A WOW factor of 8.5!!