Gothic romance gets a feminist twist in Hyde Park’s ‘The Moors’

A gloomy mansion on the moors, two mysterious sisters, a hidden relative in the attic, deceit in the air: these are all elements of good gothic horror, and it’s from this skeleton that writer Jen Silverman builds her bizarre feminist fable, The Moors, now given a bold, intelligent production at Hyde Park Theatre. Part of Hyde Park’s season of female playwrights, director Ken Webster and company have brought in some of their heaviest hitters to play the women at the heart of the work,  including mainstays such as Jess Hughes and Katie Kohler, as well as talented a handful of talented newcomers, coming together for a tale of intrigue, murder, and dog-chicken romance.

Jen Silverman’s play takes place in a house at the edge of the titular moors, where a new Governess has to come to work. Soon after she arrives, this newcomer begins to suspect something is amiss,  as the master of the house, who wrote her glowing, romantic letters, hasn’t been seen since her arrival, and the child she is to govern is nowhere to be found. Add to this the eccentric nature of the sisters who run the house, and the bizarre behavior of their house keeper, and we begin see the roots of an intriguing mystery.  What springs forth from these humble beginnings, however, is beyond our imaginings, as schemes are hatched, murders are planned, and romance blooms from both woman and animal alike. It’s an unpredictable journey, that would be a narrative labyrinth if not held steady by the talents of director Ken Webster, and a cast that has a thorough understanding of each bizarre story beat.

Though the play begins to take some strange turns early on, it truly takes off with the arrival of Lindsay Hearn Brustein as the Moorhen. It takes a rare kind of talent to add pathos to the plight of a literal wild chicken, but this actress is able to pull it off. There’s something wonderfully precocious about how Brustein takes on her role, with everything from her slight frame, her large eyes, and her clever wardrobe helping to sell the careful naivete of her character. There’s an air of spring breeze in her performance, a delightful airyness and lightness to her movement and affect that helps to truly sell her interpretation.  She works well against David Yakubik’s Mastiff, whose dopey adoration and optimism, which turns to obsession in the play’s later stages, works as an excellent counterbalance to Brustein’s wide-eyed search for freedom.

Crystal Bird Caviel’s performance is far from airy, but it’s not any less entrancing. Caviel gives off a powerful presence as soon she arrives as the sisters’ housekeeper Marjory (or Mallory, depending on her location), emanating attitude while hardly saying a word. It’s an intimating presence, but one that creates plenty of laughs as she bounces off her fellow actresses. Her character truly comes alive in the play’s later stages, as her deviousness creeps out, and the fun truly begins. Marjory/Mallory makes for a hilarious villain, and Caviel is careful to play up both the character’s sinister qualities as well as her humorous ones, to create a balance that extenuates both sides.

Catherine Grady has been climbing in notoriety in the Austin theatre scene, and with “The Moors”, she may have given her most interesting performance. Acting as the taciturn cold Agathy, she’s sly and no-nonsense, and Grady is able to sell this with aplomb, while never seeming like a caricature. Her best moments come when her relationship with Katie Kohler’s Emily is allowed to blossom, and some of her softer sides are able to peek through, brought out by the sly charm Kohler brings to her role. In the wrong hands this kind of character could come off as flat and colorless, but Grady gives us just enough to savor Agatha’s harshness.

Silverman’s play is a multifaceted one, taking the traditional narrative of the Gothic romance and, through it, giving us as story of the destructive nature of obsession and unfettered masculinity.  It’s not an easy night of theatre, or one that will be for every taste, but for those seeking to intellectually stimulated and taken on a wild ride into the dark back country, there’s plenty to love in Hyde Park’s latest offering.

The Moors is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through August 1st. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit hydeparktheatre.org.

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