A Red Orchid’s absurdly wonderful ‘Moors’ is ruthlessly profound, peculiarly funny
However you classify “The Moors” — comedy, drama, thriller satire, farce all apply at various times — there’s no equivocating on its entertainment value.
It’s been almost two years since A Red Orchid Theatre had a live performance in its storied, intimate Wells Street space, but as playwright Jen Silverman’s weird and wonderful “The Moors” unspools, it’s clear that the ensemble’s mighty light hasn’t dimmed.
Director Kirsten Fitzgerald’s 100-minute staging showcases what has long been A Red Orchid’s singular strength: committed, razor-sharp ensemble members capable of wresting profundity (and a whole lot of laughter) from absurdity, or rather, what initially sounds like absurdity.
When: Through Feb. 27
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells
Tickets: $30 – $40
Run-time: 100 minutes, no intermission
NOTE: All audience members ages 5 and older must provide proof of vaccination upon entry and wear masks at all times.
Not just any actor can make a romance between a bird and a big dog into bona fide love story, especially when it ends with abrupt, Darwinian brutality. Anthropomorphism is a tricky beast to get right outside of children’s books, but Guy Van Swearingen (The Mastiff) and Dado (A Moor-Hen) pull it off masterfully.
The inter-species romance playing out on the desolate, ruthless titular moors runs parallel to the human drama in Silverman’s twisted gothic tale. As in the prototypical gothic novel “Jane Eyre,” “The Moors” centers on a governess lured to an isolated English manse surrounded here by marsh and quicksand.
But after the sweet-seeming Emilie (Audrey Billings) arrives from London, Silverman stands the tropes of the genre on their head. There’s someone walled up in the attic, but unlike in “Jane Eyre,” it’s not a mad woman. There is sexual tension abounding, but it’s not between the governess and some craggy-handsome, emotionally absent master. There are no children. There are two murders.
There are also two songs, the first a trilling soprano lullaby, the second a belting ode to a murderess.
Peculiarity upon peculiarity piles up as Emilie attempts to adjust to life under the formidable eyes of Agatha (Karen Aldridge), who runs the mansion-on-the-moors with predatory efficiency and, perhaps, delusion. Among the oddities:
— All the rooms in the mansion look exactly like the parlor. Parlor maid Mallory is pregnant while scullery maid Marjory has “the typhus,” but both are the same person (played by Jen Engstrom in a monstrously good comedic turn).
— Agatha’s needy, downtrodden sister Huldey (Christina Gorman) wanders the house with a diary she is certain she’s filled with scintillating secrets everyone is dying to find out. In point of fact, nobody gives a feather about the diary or Huldey, not even when she takes up a sparkly microphone and delivers that murder ballad with arena-worthy vocals and drama.
Emilie initially seems no match for either Agatha or the wild, deadly landscape or the warped realities of her new home. And while Emilie delivers that soprano lullaby with lyric, silvery pipes that could soothe any infant, she also has a pragmatically predatory streak that is not to be trifled with.
Costume designer Myron Elliott-Cisneros has built stylized versions of the voluminous skirts and corseted waists of the 19th century, adding obvious anachronisms into the garments. Aldrich’s intricate black gown has massive zippers running from bodice to ankles and blood-red petticoats slithering underneath. Emilie’s lace-and-pink tiered skirts look about as sturdy as cotton candy. Engstrom’s maid outfits define the differences between Marjory and Mallory with a twist of the cap or the cut of an apron. When Huldey goes full-on-balladeer, she dons a deconstructed tartan skirt, draped like a toga and topped by bra straps.
Milo Bue’s set captures the essence of an ancient mansion possibly inhabited by the unhinged; dead vines snake over a massive hearth, broken picture frames hang forlornly from the walls.
In all, Fitzgerald delivers a show that proves A Red Orchid isn’t just surviving. However you classify “The Moors” — comedy, drama, thriller satire, farce all apply at various times — there’s no equivocating on its entertainment value.