Dark and Funny, Secrets Lurk in ‘The Moors’

Drawing inspiration from literary greats and feminist slasher heroines alike, The Moors thrives in the shadows with a stellar cast and standout designs. It runs at Seattle Public Theater through April 14.  


In a lonely manor on the moors live two sisters, stern Agatha (Lisa Viertel) and bubbly Huldey (Megan Ahiers), with only a maid or two (or possibly three? — it fluctuates, but they’re all played by Kiki Abba) and their mastiff (Peter Dylan O’Connor) for company. Their brother Branwell is … indisposed, which is a disappointment to Emilie (Hazel Rose Gibson), the fresh-faced governess who’s just arrived to care for a child, who also seems to be … indisposed. Every one of them is striving for something — love, freedom, connection, just to be seen — that’s almost within their grasp. Not everyone gets what they’re after, but they’re the lucky ones; at least they’re still alive by the time the curtain falls. 

Seattle Public Theater’s production of The Moors is full of dark delights, coupling a truly stellar cast with a sleek, stylish production design that had the audience laughing in delight and gasping in horror — sometimes within the same scene. 

Lisa Viertel, Megan Ahiers, Kiki Abba, and Hazel Rose Gibson in Seattle Public Theater’s ‘The Moors’. Photo by Joe Iano.

The play feels at once chockful of references, but not derivative. Playwright Jen Silverman wrote the piece over the span of a week’s residency in the Berkshires and noted in interviews about the play that they’d been mainlining the Bronte sisters’ letters in the months prior to writing it. There’s plenty of Bronte DNA in the play — the dark human passions that the blasted heaths seem to provoke in the characters have more than a whiff of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights to them, while the situation of the young, friendless governess, drawn to a secluded manor to teach her charge while falling in love with the master of the house, has obvious parallels to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

But there are smatterings too of Jane Austen, of the infamous ax murders of Lizzie Borden, of the camp horror film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, or the pulp novels of V.C. Andrews, even of the meta-theatricality of playwrights like Eugène Ionesco or other Absurdists. But the queer, feminist heart of the piece, the bubbling rage and the shifting power dynamics of the characters, makes it feel like much more than a mere pastiche of Victorian tropes. The period setting is the frame; the art inside is something wholly modern. 

All that, and it’s funny, too, as long as you like your humor on the blacker side. Director Annie Lareau deftly balances the play’s sort of A/B plot structure, mining the humor and pathos out of both. Ahiers as the dim and diary-obsessed Huldey is a masterful physical comedian, bouncing around the stage in bubble-gum pink sequined sneakers (more on Jocelyne Fowler’s lovely, thoughtful costume design to follow) with a manic gleam in her too-wide eyes, reaching a climax in Act II with the performance of a ballad that’s equal parts Taylor Swift and Roxy Hart that had the audience guffawing. 

Viertel’s Agatha is a quieter part, but the actress imbued her with both power and vulnerability, especially in scenes with Gibson’s Emilie, who gave the character a sort of opacity that kept me guessing as to her real motivations; a scene between the two in Agatha’s bedroom is a study in shifting power dynamics. As snarky maid Marjory (Malory? Margaret? Yes.), Abba gave a hilariously dry performance, with a physicality that brought to mind comedian Carol Burnett in her heyday, but with a turn-on-a-dime shift into menace that left me pleasantly startled. 

Alyssa Keene as Moorhen and Peter Dylan O’Connor as Mastiff in Seattle Public Theater’s ‘The Moors’. Photo by Joe Iano.

O’Connor is, thankfully, provided with knee pads for his turn as this play’s melancholy Dane — excuse me, mastiff. The philosophizing pooch, pondering what it all means, meets-cute with a Moorhen (an excellent Alyssa Keene, conveying the character with quick tilts of her head and flapping hands) who crash lands near the house, for whom he develops a passion that starts off puppyish and ends, inevitably, bloody. This is the play’s most overtly Absurd plot — Dog contemplating God — but both actors play it straight, which gives their doomed romance weight as well as humor. 

The set design by Robin Macartney and projection design from Ahren Buhmann work seamlessly to create an air of isolation and austerity in the bleakness of the moorlands, with framed “windows” to the outside world that come and go, sometimes replaced with period-appropriate family portraits, each with a modern twist. Without shifting a single piece of furniture, we “move” convincingly from room to room, and even to the outdoors, in a way that emphasizes the play’s pokes at the fourth wall. 

Fowler’s costume design, too, evokes the period but deftly weaves in modern elements and flourishes that speak to each character’s nature — Huldey’s lace blouse and skirt paired with sparkly sneakers and pink hair; Agatha’s more traditional, buttoned-up silhouette colored crimson, but with subtly masculine elements; the butterfly motifs sprinkled over Emilie’s dress and socks, suggestive of change and metamorphosis. Period, with a twist, much like the play itself.

This was my first experience at Seattle Public Theater, housed in a converted bathhouse on the shore of Green Lake, but if in the future I can expect more productions like The Moors? I guarantee it won’t be my last visit.

The Moors runs through 4/14 at Seattle Public Theater at Green Lake. Tickets ($10-$100, sliding scale available to all) here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.

Run time: 1 hour 50 minutes, no intermission. 

Jill Farrington Sweeney is a Texas ex-pat getting to know the Seattle-area arts scene, and is perpetually on the hunt for good Mexican food. Her writing has appeared on TheaterJones, Onstage NTX, and NWTheatre.