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‘The Moors,’ the merrier

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‘The Moors,’ the merrier (photo courtesy True North Theatre/Isaac C. Anderson)

ORONO – A local theatre company is back in action, bringing a skewed take on the literary trope of the windswept moors to the Orono stage.

True North Theatre’s latest production is “The Moors” by Jen Silverman. The piece – directed by Jasmine Ireland – is an idiosyncratic and irreverent story of a pair of spinster sisters living in a crumbling house set in the midst of isolated wild country. The setting – time and place – is specific while also being oddly, well … unmoored, riddled with absurdity and anachronism even as the central tragicomic narrative unfolds. The show runs through June 12 at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre on the University of Maine campus.

It is a strange piece, to be sure, dark and darkly funny and unapologetic in its weirdness; a challenging play that is very much in keeping with the general ethos of True North Theatre. Bleak on its surface, it’s a show that plumbs those shadows for moments of pitch-black humor that only serve to accentuate the themes of interpersonal disconnect at its center.

Let me put it this way – whatever you think “The Moors” is going to be, it probably isn’t that … and that’s a good thing.

Agatha (Angela Bonacasa) and Huldey (Lauren Billings) are sisters – both spinsters – living in an aging house that is slowly crumbling into the moors on which it sits. Agatha rules the household with an iron fist, stern and demanding with a keen awareness of just what buttons to push in order to manipulate any given situation. Huldey is the younger sister, a fabulist who believes the exaggerations she writes in her diary will someday make her famous in the realm of letters.

Their sole companions in the house – at least initially – are the maid, a woman named Marjory (Deb Ashmore) who appears to be the only household staff. She might have typhus, she might be pregnant, she might be both or she might be neither. And finally, there’s a big, brooding mastiff (Ben Layman), a dog whose presence doesn’t seem to be particularly desired by anyone in the house.

Change comes to the moors, however, in the person of Emilie (Aimee Gerow), a governess who has been hired away from London. But when Emilie arrives, her reasons for being hired quickly grow opaque, even as she seeks to speak to the man of the house – the man whose correspondence with her gave her a deeper desire to come.

Meanwhile, out on the moors, the mastiff, in the midst of an existential crisis of sorts, happens upon a Moor-Hen (Holly Costar) that has fallen from the sky. He strikes up a conversation with the bird; she doesn’t trust him, but their connection gradually grows.

It’s not long before the situation at the house begins to spiral into chaos. Everyone has their own motivations, even as their words and deeds plunge into the depths of absurdity. The barely-there veneer of gentility is rapidly rubbed away, leaving behind it a swirling morass of the bizarre, with the connections between people (and between animals) laid bare in a sense of pure opportunistic primality.

“The Moors” was not what I expected. From a starting point built on a foundation of 19th century novels, the play quickly goes off the rails, careening into a bizarre amalgam of straitlaced social mores and anachronistic lunacy – questions of love, of faith and of the nature of reality itself are raised both directly and indirectly, resulting in a mélange of exquisite nonsense that gets more interesting with each strange development.

It's a choice that makes sense for True North Theatre – this one was originally scheduled for the spring of 2020 and they’ve kept it on the docket; it’s a strong representation of the types of work that the company hangs its collective hat on. They’re a group that unabashedly runs the gamut, so doing a show like “The Moors” – a show that defies easy categorization – is the kind of good time that they’ve always been interested in having.

Jasmine Ireland’s direction leans into the show’s weirdness without ever becoming beholden to it; there’s a feeling of groundedness to the whole thing that keeps the underlying absurdity from alienating the audience. Everything - up to and including the extended dialogues between dog and bird – is attached to this stylish and stylized version of reality. It’s the sort of show that could easily fly out of control; instead, Ireland gives her actors room to run while also making sure they remain within the confines of the world they have collectively constructed.

TNT has long displayed an affinity for ensemble-driven work – “The Moors” is no exception. Agatha is the character around whom all others orbit; Angela Bonacasa does a wonderful job of imbuing her with sufficient presence to provide the gravitational pull that holds all others close. She is sly and snarky and wickedly mean, with enough charisma to allow us to laugh even in her moments of most cutting savagery. As Huldey, Lauren Billings strikes a lovely counterpoint to Bonacasa’s Agatha, her misplaced ambition and unearned confidence juxtaposing against the well-placed and earned attitudes of her sibling.

Aimee Gerow is charmingly befuddled as the out-of-her-element Emilie, even as the brief taste of reality she introduces is quickly subsumed by the strangeness of the moors. It’s the sort of role that could get lost in the shuffle, but Gerow’s choices – broad and subtle alike – keep her very much in the fray. Deb Ashmore is doing good work as she plays multiple roles – sort of – and is a consistent comedic presence.

And then we have the critter contingent. Ben Layman is a big wad of depressive droopiness, his every gesture and exhalation an expression of world-weariness and dissatisfaction. Holly Costar’s mannerisms are just the right degree of birdlike; she presents an impression of birdness rather than an imitation – it’s a small distinction, but a vital one. The two of them are in many ways the soul of the play, their interactions expressing the narrative’s ideas with an allegorical panache that is deeply surprising and satisfying.

As someone with great affection for the Pavilion Theatre, I am always happy to see that space living up to its potential. The scenic design of Chez Cherry and the lighting design of Isaac Anderson come together to create the feeling of a once-great house slowly collapsing into the oppressive natural world that surrounds it. With creeping branches and striking shadows, it is an aesthetically engaging space. Rebecca Wright’s costumes are stunning, beautiful pieces that are evocative of the intended time period while also offering a few anachronistic hints that hit just right. Add to that the atmospheric sound design from Christopher Duff and some well-executed props courtesy of Sarah McNamara and you’ve got another top-shelf collection of production values from True North.

This show probably isn’t going to work for everyone. It is strange and savage and bleak and brutal. It is also smart and thoughtful and darkly funny and challenging. If that sounds like it might be too much for you, well … perhaps it will be. But if you’re someone who enjoys well-executed theatrical work that makes you laugh even as you ponder the human condition – work that lingers long after the curtain drops – you probably ought to pay a visit to “The Moors.”

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 June 2022 09:23

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