Ah, gothic romance. It is always a dark and stormy night with sexually repressed spinsters sitting in the parlor of a creaky old mansion with ivy growing inside. The winds howl as the storm rages and a mastiff sits forlornly looking out of the window. A Red Orchid Theatre’s The Moors takes the lid off the staid and murky tales of unrequited passion with a few moments of zen thrown in via Moor Hen and the Mastiff. Yes, there is a governess, a sinister maid, typhus fever, and someone in the attic for the purist. However, The Moors takes DuMaurier, the Brontes, and even Henry James and tells the story behind the tales of our high school reading lists.
Sisters Agatha (Karen Aldridge) and Huldey (Christina Gorman) sit in the parlor waiting for the new governess to arrive. Aldridge is superb as the older sister dressed in black and constantly critical of everything and everyone. Agatha sets the boundaries and even a hair out of place is noticed. When Mastiff (Guy Van Swearingen) raises his head to look out the window, Aldridge hisses at him and he slinks back down to the floor. Gorman is perfect as the youngest sister just wanting to be noticed and waiting for something exciting to happen.
Jennifer Engstrom as Marjory/Mallory the maid is a send-up of Mrs. Danvers (Dame Judith Anderson of course) and Magenta from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Engstrom has a wonderfully expressive face that bounces between sullen and resentful servant to maniacal plotter whispering in Huldey’s gullible ears. Audrey Billings plays governess Emilie and brings a flirtatious and wide-eyed innocence to the role. Like Miss Giddens in The Turn of the Screw, she soon discovers that things are not as Master Bramwell wrote in his letters.
Playwright Jen Silverman stirs in a surreal subplot with Mastiff and Moor Hen (Dado). It is strangely moving and exists as a disquieting subconscious for the human characters. Van Swearingen is a sad-eyed dog who longs for attention but is a downtrodden prop without a name to Agatha. Every house in the English moors must have a large and menacing dog after all. Mastiff is the literate soul searcher of the story. He too longs for love and to break free from the confines of the house. Dado’s performance as the clumsy Moor Hen brings the elusive and longed-for companionship that Mastiff seeks. Their relationship is the conscience of the story and their dialogue is the zen in the story. The humans are covert with their intentions and feelings but Mastiff and Moor Hen can only be what they are, no matter their eloquence and desires.
The dialogue in The Moors is exquisitely funny. It is also revelatory about the inner workings of longing and the facades that people wear. Director Kirsten Fitzgerald gives sharp and quick pacing to the action. In an intimate setting like Red Orchid, there is no room for missteps and there are none. The Moors is ensemble work at its best. Myron Elliott-Cisneros’ costumes add to the subversive nature of the play. Agatha wears a black gown that shimmers like feathers but with brass zippers for a touch of punk rock or maybe even S&M. I am relatively sure that zippers were not invented until the 20th century, but they accentuate the character of Agatha as a tightly wound woman who goes against the grain and has the mien of a predator.
Huldey wears layers of intricate fabric that reflect her being smothered and waiting to be freed from her sister’s clutches. The fluffy pink confection that Emilie wears is a mask of her true nature and intentions. Mastiff wears a debonair tweed and Moor Hen is a flourish of black feathers, iridescent green, and funky lace-up boots that look like moorhen legs. Everything is as it should be but nothing is what it seems.
The Moors is a literate and beautifully staged show. The scenic design by Milo Blue encapsulates decay and madness in the intimate Red Orchid setting. The fog, vines, and cracked portraits form physical boundaries where this strange collection of characters live. The Moors is a show that holds up a mirror into the times in which we live as well. Some accept these limits and others go against restraints to break free no matter the consequence. It is a wickedly funny take on the gothic romance novel where the macabre blends with forbidden desires and suppressed passion. The moral of the story could be that schemers sometimes do prosper and dogs will be dogs. Go see this play and draw your conclusions. I highly recommend The Moors as a refreshing return to true Chicago-style theater—fearless and provocative.
The Moors at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., has been extended until March 6. Performances are Thursday through Sunday. The performance is 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $30-$40. For info call 312-943-8722 or visit www.aredorchidtheatre.org
Covid protocols are proof of vaccination and photo ID for entry. Masks are to be worn at all times to protect yourself, the actors, and the audience.