The moors of 19th century literature are lonely and isolated, as enigmatic as the shifting fog that enshrouds them. Mystery and even danger inevitably await. They are also a “savage” place in Jen Silverman’s quasi-satiric play “The Moors,” which in one brazen act deconstructs any romantic sensibility instilled in them by the likes of the hallowed Bronte sisters. Diversionary Theatre’s production of “The Moors,” a West Coast premiere directed by Lisa Berger, is an antidote to the fulsome emotionalism of novels like “Wuthering Heights.” At the same time, it’s a subversive, at times bizarre, alternative to the holiday-oriented theater fare that will predominate the remainder of the year.
“The Moors” is set in “the 1840s-ish” according to the theater program, and Silverman’s expressive script makes every effort to suggest that its avowed truisms about power, desire and the respectable order of things are as cogent today as they were, or should have been, over a century ago. As in the sweeping tales of those bygone times, Silverman’s play takes place in a mysterious house on a bleak moor, where at the outset two spinster sisters, the domineering Agatha (Kim Strassburger, effecting icy) and mousey but manic Huldey (Hannah Logan) are preparing to welcome a governess to the premises. When Emily (Whitney Brianna Thomas) arrives, it is soon clear that the estate master who summoned her in come-hithering letters (the sisters’ brother) is missing, and more quixotic still, there is no child in need of a governess. There’s also a house maid (Gerilyn Brault) who may or may not be named Marjory or Mallory and who may be either with chronic cough or with child.
All this before the real screws have been turned (that’s Henry James, not Bronte, but no matter) in “The Moors.” A “forbidden” love affair, a deadly conspiracy and a brutal murder are yet to come. When secrets fairly crying out to be confided are made known and simmering impulses are indulged, the tenor of “The Moors” turns comic and for all practical purposes to camp. Best served by this evolution of tone is Logan, whose portrayal of oppressed sister Huldey is frighteningly hilarious. Logan also is the beneficiary of the play’s spotlight moment, in which she goes full diva murderess.
With minimal humor but no shortage of metaphor-making and weighty observation is a subplot relationship between the family mastiff dog (John DeCarlo, speaking as if imbued) and a wide-eyed moorhen (Rachel Esther Tate). The mastiff’s ominous courtship of the feathery tutu-clad hen takes place on the moor, which is suggested onstage by drawing a curtain over Kristen Flores’ Victorian set. Is this open-air liaison just more forbidden, foredoomed desire? Only playwright Silverman knows for sure.
If the machinations of this 1840s-ish world defy explanation in deference to the latitude expected of dark comedy, then it’s all good with what goes on in this entertaining but confounding play. Or as sister Agatha says with cold, deadly-certain confidence about her moorland manor: “All things here are possible.” (Review originally published in San Diego Union-Tribune on 11/21/17.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.