WILMINGTON — When professor Dr. Paul Castagno sought the season-ending show for UNCW’s Department of Theater, he wanted a contemporary piece exploring topics that would connect with student actors. Romance, power, fame, freedom, inclusion, desperation, murder — it’s all found in LGBTQ playwright Jen Silverman’s “The Moors.” The eccentric show makes its final run this weekend at the UNCW Cultural Arts Building.
Silverman — who went on to write for Netflix’s “Tales of the City” — published “The Moors” in 2017, which features family menace and a love affair between two Victorian-era women. Set in the mid-19th century in the stark English countryside, the location’s solitude builds upon character isolation — and disconnect — from the rest of the world.
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“I spent about a year adjacent to the Yorkshire Moors while on a Fulbright so have a firsthand knowledge of their beauty and desolation,” Dr. Castagno told Port City Daily. He was studying hybrid and polyvocal works that fuse multiple genres, which inspired him to direct “The Moors.” The storytelling tips its hat to fables, thrillers, romance, queer tropes, and comedy.
Silverman also the wrote the show in homage to English literature mavens, the Brontë sisters (“Wurthering Heights,” “Jane Eyre”). The Brontës had a brother named Branwell, a character name in “The Moors,” whom the audience never sees. Still, theater-goers don’t have to be literary geeks to enjoy the show. Though taking place sometime in the 1840s, the play is modern, with macabre overtones underscored with levity.
“It’s basically a dark comedy,” Castagno said.
It follows two sisters, Huldey and Agatha, who live in a manse in the dreary moors, wherein they daydream of love and fame. They are accompanied by their scullery and parlor maids, Mallory and Marjory, and a talking Mastiff who happens to be in love with a chatty moor hen. (Yes, one of the most unusual and engaging parts: The animals talk in the play, requiring the audience to suspend disbelief.)
An aspiring literary writer, Huldey craves celebrity. Yet, she spends most of her time penning in her journal how much she despises her overbearing sister, Agatha — the “power broker of the household,” Castagno explained in his director’s notes.
Castagno compares Julia Murray’s Agatha to Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”: “[She] is perfect as the Danforth-like head of household.”
A hapless governess, Emilie, is lured to the manse under the guise of love letters sent by Branwell, the sisters’ brother who is locked away in an attic. Really, Agatha is the one who has been corresponding, in a scheme for the governess to have Branwell’s child to secure the family estate.
However, Agatha’s entrapment of Emilie leads to something more — a budding adoration between the two.
“Agatha’s real goal is not love but continuing the family line,” Castagno explained. “It’s ultimately transactional.”
Portraying Emilie is Maddy Tamms. Though her character is billed as scatterbrained, Tamms calls Emilie overly optimistic and innocent until enchanted by the spell of Agatha’s attention.
“I really appreciate the opportunity to tell this story about a queer woman who is able to explore her sexuality without the confines of the patriarchy,” Tamms said. “There are some pretty dark themes in the show involving relationships and the self. The moors themselves are even a looming concept.”
Beset with eerie magic, the land is the only place the Mastiff — played by Cole Warren, dressed in tweed and fur — speaks in the show.
“In the house, he acts like a dog,” Castagno clarified.
UNCW senior Amber Bullock plays his love interest, the moor hen. Bullock calls “The Moors” a “gothic romance,” with gloomy elements of humanity inevitably sneaking through satire. The dog and bird wax philosophy of existence, love and happiness.
“The ‘What is God’ line, it never fails to make me laugh,” Bullock said, “and I think it just really shows the innocence of my character.”
When she rejects mating with a different species, things turn morose as the Mastiff’s animalistic instincts take over. Castagno describes their relationship as “heartfelt but ultimately controlling and scary” — a dynamic applicable to every connection unfolding onstage.
Another commonality weaving the plot: Nothing is ever quite as it seems. Though the set is one parlor, characters refer to them as different rooms. Though there are multiple maids, they look one in the same. Though one person may seemingly obtain the most influence, it deviates by the next scene.
Kat Dowdee plays the roles of the servants, Mallory, Marjory, and Margaret, depending on which room they are in. At first, the characters come across as obliging and meek. By the end, they have become driving factors in a murder plot.
“What I love most about this production is the underlying power-shifts that you don’t see happening from the start,” Dowdee said.
Four women inhabit the home and only two dominate, she explained. Throughout the production, the maids gain more footing, revealing brainwashing motives.
“My favorite moment of the play would be when I finally turn the tables and that there is no more reservation on Hudley’s part: That I finally got in her head,” Dowdee said.
Performed by Lilly Ferguson, Huldey is always under the thumb of domineering Agatha, grappling with notions of being seen and accepted by her sister. She eventually exacts revenge at the encouragement of the maid.
The show builds to her taking her 15 minutes of fame — or, as the case may be, infamy. Huldey grabs a microphone to show off her vocal chops. It sets off a whole Victorian punk-rock mood, a la “Lizzie Borden the Musical.”
“The authenticity of the characters and their relationships really speak to me, as well as how they work in tandem with the different genres that the show bounces between,” Tamms added. “Additionally, the time period makes for some incredible costumes.”
Mark Sorensen has crafted Victorian looks to “punch-up the characterizations,” Castagno explained. The set, by Rand Enlow and Max Lydy, embraces despondency, with the help of student lighting designer Alex Sargent. Lightning and thunder effects were created by John McCall, along with projections — showing trees when characters are in the moors or dripping blood to accentuate the finale.
“The Moors” continues Apr. 7-10 in the Mainstage Theatre at UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays; virtual performances can also be accessed here. Tickets are $6-$15.
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