I can hear the call echoing over England's bleak Yorkshire moors. It's the cry from a Brontë, of that I am certain. But is it Emily's soulful plaint from Wuthering Heights, Charlotte's innocent plea from Jane Eyre, Anne's adamant door slam from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, or Branwell's addicted wail? It's all of them, of course, mixed with a hearty dose of laudanum, sweet aromas of ripe heather, and veiled references to sexual repression, dark desires, and secrets kept alive in the attic.
What a family were the Brontës, England's first literary royalty. It would take decades until the three sisters were acknowledged for their mastery, although profligate painter/poet brother Branwell was the first published author of the family but died young from opiate and alcohol poisoning. What happened in that priory house where patriarch Patrick ruled their lives?
Well, I'll tell you, or, instead, playwright Jen Silverman (The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane; Crane Story) will tell you in her distinguished, funny, weird homage to Brontë Victoriana, The Moors, now conquering and delighting via Mildred's Umbrella's delightfully odd production. What a pleasure this is. How bracing.
I will not bore you, dear reader, with the perfunctory issues, but I will relate that the surprises come fast and furious and are never obvious or overdone. There is whimsy aplenty (too much twee-ness perhaps between a mastiff and his new-found love, a moor-hen) and a lot of anachronistic theatrics, but the constrained passions bubbling below the surface are amply displayed, beautifully played, and leave us with a disquieting feeling of dread and delight. If you'd twist all the sisters' plots into one strange satiric homage, The Moors would pop out.
Governess Emilie (Lisa Villegas) has been hired by poet Branwell to take care of a baby. Emilie has fallen in love with him through his letters, which fill her with – as they used to imply in such novels written in the 1830s – dangerous longings. Naturally, the house is large and desolate, squatting on the endless moors, buffeted by winds and surrounded by indifferent nature. Everything's confined, condensed, ready to boil. Eldest sister Agatha (Amy Warren) is prim and cold, corseted inside her shirtwaist vest as if encased by whalebone. She's harsh and unrelenting as the countryside. Younger sister Huldey (Lyndsay Sweeney) is the wide-eyed romantic, a relentless writer in her diary, who details the fame she thinks she deserves. Like another sister in that famous Russian play, she dreams of fleeing to the bright lights of the big city. The house is scrubbed, polished, and looked after by the dual servant Marjory/Mallory (Briana Resa), who is either pregnant or suffering from tuberculosis, depending upon which room she enters. All the rooms in the manse look alike, be they bedroom, library, or great hall. Silverman likes to play parlor games with us.
Then there's the subplot of the family mastiff (Jon Harvey) who finds a wounded moor-hen (Samantha Jaramillo) and falls instantly in love. Their inter-species affair mirrors what's happening in the great house, if that mirror hangs in Wonderland. The denouement between high-flying hen and earth-bound dog might affect you more than poor offstage Branwell in the attic, catching sunbeams in his mouth through the chink in the wall.
The cast catches all the starchy Victorian subtleties of expression, and Warren is especially adept at depicting archness masquerading as seduction; while Sweeney (in a role seemingly tailor-made for her) displays her usual adroitness in playing sweet things who aren't necessarily so sweet underneath. Lindsay Burns' costumes, especially the mastiff's tawny great coat with fur cuffs, are lovingly evocative (the aviator goggles on the hen are a touch of comic genius), while Jon Harvey's sound design of Yorkshire rain and wind and Andy McWilliams' contempo score more than compensate for the bland set design that is strangely Art Nouveau-ish. Where's the endless panorama of northern English scrubland? Heathcliff, fill my arms with heather!
Under artistic director Jennifer Decker's crisp direction, this is exciting theater, done with a wink, smirk, and loving grin. Through Silverman's avatars, the Brontë sisters (and unseen brother) live again through very modern eyes. Rule Britannica.
The Moors. Through September 15. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sunday, September 9. September 10 is industry night. Chelsea Market Theatre, 4617 Montrose Boulevard. For information, call 832-463-0409 or visit mildredsumbrella.com. All shows pay-what-you-can with suggested admission $25.