Irreverent black comedy will make you think … perhaps too much

The Moors” is a complicated play that intertwines veiled (and unveiled references) to the Brontë sisters and their works with dark contemporary humor as it presents parallel stories set amongst the vast and gloomy English moors. Although clever, this surreal production may leave some audience members scratching their heads by the end.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still entertaining and showcases strong performances by local actors. But at times its sartorial humor feels forced and you may find yourself wishing you were in on the inside joke.

Even if references to Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre bring back lukewarm memories of stuffy high school literature classes, you won’t be bogged down by references to them in “The Moors.” The play doesn’t take itself too seriously and can stand on its own.

The show focuses on two sisters, their depressed mastiff dog and their lonely, isolated life. Sisters Agatha and Huldey are adrift after the death of their father and, like the Brontë sisters, are feeling trapped by the patriarchal society surrounding them and yearning for escape. The arrival of a naïve young governess turns the household upside down and begins to reveal how each is dealing with her loneliness and to what lengths they will each go to evade their preordained fates.

Older sister Agatha’s driving thirst for power at first overpowers her sister’s desire for attention and fame. But, thanks to the conniving influence of the maid(s), Huldey begins to find her own voice (both literally and figuratively). Both sisters actively scheme to bring their desires to life — although Huldey is determined to finish her ballad and set her ‘accomplishments’ to music before trying to implement them.

“The Moors” also doesn’t shy away from exploring the sexual aspects of female characters as their relationship unfolds and they find comfort in each other’s strength — and arms.

Set as a period piece, the play underscores the cultural connections between the Brontës’ time period and today’s “#MeToo” era with overt comparisons and more than a few knowing winks and nods. For example, it is eventually revealed that there is a mysterious brother walled up in the attic, but he’s more of a sly allusion to Jane Eyre than an actual character.

Another example of the contrasts at play are the parallel stories that emerge, which adds to the nuances of the production. As the plot develops among the human characters, an injured Moor Hen drops from the sky and interrupts the sisters’ morose mastiff (Geoffrey Kent) from his existential quandary on the meaning of life. The giant animal immediately becomes infatuated with the flighty bird, played by Emily Van Fleet. As their uneasy relationship struggles to bloom, their interactions mirror the search for love and meaning of their human counterparts struggling with the same questions.

Both actors do a credible job playing what are ostensibly animals displaying all-too-human emotions.  Both are dressed in “human” clothing, but deftly use subtle physical gestures to remind you of their animalistic characteristics.

Emma Messenger brings another strong performance to the Arvada’s Black Box Repertory stage as strong-willed sister Agatha, who reluctantly reveals glimpses of her romantic side and becomes softer and more approachable during the course of the play.

Jessica Robblee provides stark contrast as the artless and malleable younger sister Huldey, who desperately craves attention. Particularly notable is Robblee’s song and dance routine (yes, song and dance) toward the end that descends (ascends?) into a rap song by the last beat.

Regina Fernandez plays Emilie, the new governess whose character rapidly evolves from a wide-eyed ingénue at the beginning to a confident protagonist by the end.

Annie Barbour is also delightful as the pinch-faced Marjory née Madeline (the interchangeable parlor and scullery maids), who provide comedic relief at the start of the play only to eventually collude with the sisters.

Even the moors themselves almost become one of the characters within the play, representing strength and solitude balanced against the darkness and unknown.

It is worthwhile to take the time to read the companion guide offered for “The Moors.” It gives a glimpse into the complexity of the play with its full page of definitions, including the “literary devices” throughout. But it also emphasizes the humor and playfulness woven through the play.

“The Moors” is presented by the Arvada Center’s Black Box Repertory Company of actors, directors, technical artists and designers. Audiences will see the repertory actors throughout the season in a variety of roles. The regional premier of “The Moors,” an original comedy by Jen Silverman, is part of its ongoing focus on female playwrights.

The Black Box Theater at Arvada Center also offers a “Talk Back” after every performance where members of the ensemble are available for informal discussions about the play.

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