Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew the dangers that lurked on the English Moors when he penned “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the most famous of his Sherlock Holmes stories.
The Bronte sisters understood how the landscape could twist the mind and the soul of those who lived on the Moors, whether the residents chose the place or not.
Playwright Jen Silverman borrows elements from all these writers in her 90-minute, one-act play “The Moors,” being presented this weekend by True North Theatre at the Cyrus Pavilion at the University of Maine. It is a visually stunning and startling production with a fine ensemble cast that is hard to write about without giving away too many of its plot-twisting surprises.
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It is the theater company’s first production in what once was the college’s sheep barn since it presented “The Odd Couple” in January 2020.
The cast of characters includes tightly wound spinster Agatha (Angela Bonacasa), her free-spirited younger sister Huldey (Lauren Billings), a couple of maids called Marjory (Deb Ashmore), the governess Emilie (Aimee Gerow), a hound (Ben Layman) and a moorhen (Holly Costar).
The female characters are more than a bit Bronte, the hound belongs to Mr. Holmes and the hen…well, the hen is a bit like the friendly robin in the children’s classic “The Secret Garden,” also set on the Moors.
Silverman swirls these characters around in a large pitcher of repressed emotions and societal expectations until they emerge, shaking them off like a wet dog. From a 21st-century perspective, it’s no wonder so many lost their hearts, minds and souls on the desolate moors.
Director Jasmine Ireland, who starred in True North’s 2019 production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” chose the “bleak material” with “great care and purpose,” according to the director’s notes.
“I believe art at its finest makes room and provides the opportunity for catharsis,” she said. “It may be uncomfortable; it may be brutal but by shining a light on the darkest things we experience, we can overcome their power.”
Ireland keeps the focus of the play on that catharsis that the audience knows is coming, but it still is shocking and savage when it arrives. In part, that is because Ireland wrings all the humor she can from the characters, particularly the unusual friendship between the dog, a Mastiff, and the moorhen, a medium-sized water fowl.
Not one cast member outshines another in this tight ensemble but Bonacasa’s cruel and terse Agatha makes the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film “Rebecca” seem welcoming and loving rather than a woman who’d set the mansion Manderley ablaze. Gradually, over the course of the play, Bonacasa lets the audience see the cracks in that facade until a loving and vulnerable human being emerges.
Billings will begin her third year as a theater major with a minor in dance at the University of Maine in the fall. She gives an astonishingly insightful performance for someone so young. Her Huldey is full of raging hormones, unfulfilled possibilities and an anger that should not be underestimated. Billings is riveting.
As the hound and the moorhen, Layman and Costar give poignant and touching performances. Although they are from different species, the two find love, acceptance and understanding even though, in the end, neither can go against its own nature.
Technically, “The Moors” successfully pushes the limits of the pavilion, where the audience sits in tiered rows looking down on the stage from three sides. Chez Cherry’s Victorian set and Isaac C. Anderson’s lighting design create an eerie atmosphere worthy of the bleakness of the real moors of England.
Rebecca Wright’s costumes are eye-poppingly gorgeous. The huge, hooped skirts and tight corsets show more than the dialogue or the action how constrained the women of the mid-19th century were by everything in their lives from the limits society set for them to the fashionable clothes they wore.
“The Moors” is one more example of the theater company’s commitment to “producing professional quality productions that encompass a variety of genres and styles,” as outlined in its mission statement. This production was created by people who believe that live theater is one of the best ways to be transported to places we’ve never been and transformed by what we experience, communally, in the dark together.
“The Moors” should be experienced by all who believe that live performances are vital to our humanity.
“The Moors” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre at the University of Maine in Orono. Masks must be worn during performances. For tickets, visit truenorththeatre.org or call 207-619-4833.