The Arvada Center Black Box Repertory’s choice of plays continues to surprise. The third season opened on February 1 with The Diary of Anne Frank; the regional premiere of Jen Silverman’s The Moors followed. Not many artistic directors alternate oldies — sometimes revelatory, like Waiting for Godot, but sometimes as creaky and dated as Bus Stop — with scripts so inventive and new that it’s hard to parse them, as the repertory’s Lynne Collins does. The fact that the company gathers some of the most talented actors around is less surprising. That’s what happens when you offer several weeks of paid work, challenging material, smart direction and exciting artistic collaboration in an area where such opportunities are rare.
Anthony Powell, for many years an associate artistic director with the Denver Center and now the head of Stories on Stage, is the sure directorial hand behind the quicksilver madness of The Moors. The title alone tells you that this play is about the Brontës — but if they’re imaginatively central, they’re peripheral in terms of plot. Two strange and lonely sisters live in a barren, featureless house in the bleak middle of the Yorkshire moors (a running joke throughout is that the set barely changes as it supposedly morphs from bedroom to parlor and back again). The Brontë sisters had a mad brother, Branwell, and here someone called Branwell is imprisoned in the attic like Rochester’s mad wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. But the sisters aren’t Charlotte, Anne or Emily; they are childish Huldey and cruel, cold Agatha. An Emilie does arrive eventually; she’s a governess lured by the warm letters she believes were written to her by Branwell. In short, if you’re trying to piece together autobiographical fact or bits of plot from the novels, if you’d like Heathcliff himself to show up in all his dark rage and desolate love, you’re going to be disappointed. Though the sisters’ Mastiff, like Heathcliff, does enter a doomed love affair and — also like Heathcliff — would rather destroy than lose the object of his affection. Which happens to be a Moor-Hen, incapacitated by an injured leg.
But really, it’s best just to sit back in your seat and watch as this absurd, hilarious, vicious and nonsensical comedy unfolds.
Huldey and Agatha have almost nothing in common, though each wants to write, seeks immortality in her own way, and is intrigued by journals. Their maid, Marjory or Madeline — her identity is fluid and she’s either pregnant or suffering from typhus or both — seethes as she performs her menial tasks and eventually comes up with a revenge plot that leads to an ongoing question of just who will murder whom. She’s well played by Annie Barbour.
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An overarching theme is loneliness and the need to be seen, and the Mastiff, played by Geoffrey Kent, expresses these painful feelings more eloquently than the sisters ever do, though his thoughts tend to be fragmented. His relationship with the memory-challenged Moor-Hen is so funny and sweet, and so deftly played by Kent and Emily Van Fleet, that you set aside all reservations about biological differences — not to mention the sheer ridiculousness of the premise — and actually care about the outcome. Both actors do just enough to remind you of their creatures’ non-human status — Van Fleet with occasional birdlike movements of her head, Kent with rambunctious, doggy capers — while communicating seriously human emotions.
All of the acting is splendid: Emma Messenger is riveting as nasty, conniving Agatha, and Regina Fernandez’s perpetual smile as governess Emilie begins sweetly ingratiating moves through puzzlement and dawning understanding, and ultimately becomes so mean and secretive that it chills your blood. Then there’s Jessica Robblee’s Huldey: Give a highly talented actor a role with so many facets, where she can go from limited, flat statements to an outburst of song that mingles rock and ballad with a ruthless belt reminiscent of the murderesses in the musical Chicago, and you get one of those knockout performances that — almost alone —can make a critic’s life happy and worthwhile.
I can’t claim that I ever put the pieces of The Moors together into a coherent whole, or found a way to fit the script into the tradition of such absurdists as Ionesco. But given an evening as wonderfully distracting, crazed and absorbing as this, who cares?
The Moors, presented by the Arvada Center’s Black Box Repertory Theatre through May 18, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.