Theater Reconstruction Ensemble takes on literary romances at HERE.
Photo by Suzi Sadler
Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Little Women—what do all of these books have in common? Each nineteenth-century novel tells the story of a strong female character who, at least at first, turns down the marriage proposal of the man who is in love with her. While in their original texts, each woman finds some resolution to her romantic drama through marriage, Theater Reconstruction Ensemble takes a different approach to Lizzy, Cathy, Jane and Jo.
You on the Moors Now picks up the story at the moment of each failed proposal, and throws the four heroines together into one world. Their flight from the men who cannot accept rejection turns into a desperate chase, over the moors, to New York, roping in friends and family from their original novels into what ultimately turns into an all-out war.
In tearing apart everything we have been taught about love stories, You on the Moors Now takes nothing for granted. In this world, the four women being hunted like dogs, spies and family treachery are all par for the course. And while the first few scenes of the play summarize what you absolutely need to know from the novels, you do really need to have read all of them to appreciate what the ensemble is doing with the texts.
The language of this play moves fluidly between the sharpness of the original texts and the unique speech of a twenty-something New York hipster. That linguistic energy buoys the play, especially after the dragging opening section of the piece which consists largely of summary and abstract gestures that won't mean anything until later on. It takes about half the performance for You on the Moors Now to establish its own internal logic, but once the stories become fully integrated, the play becomes much more dynamic and entertaining.
Some of the best and most powerful moments in the play come toward the end, whether it's the group choral description of the final battle or the reunion scene that concludes the piece, told as a story read out of a novel as You on the Moors Now cycles back to its roots. Scenes incorporating the more minor characters from the novels—Jo's sisters of Little Women, Bingley and his sister from Pride and Prejudice and so forth—have an energy and sense of creativity about them lacking in some of the earlier parts of the play. As the universe of the play expands outward, the true potential of the story is revealed.
As a piece of devised theater with a very large cast, You on the Moors Now is all about the ensemble, but a few performances certainly stand out. Preston Martin captures the hilarious over-the-top properness of Mr. Darcy perfectly, while Anastasia Olowin takes on Cathy with a playfulness and elegance that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Meanwhile, Sam Corbin as Jane and Claire Rothrock as "River Sister" deserve special attention for their sheer comedic commitment, managing to get the audience laughing in spite of themselves at every opportunity.
Also unfortunately typical of devised theater, the play has a variety of little theatrical quirks, and some tend to confuse rather than enhance the story. This is particularly true of the "stage manager" seated on stage who turns out to be one of the actors, moving conspicuously about with keys jangling between and during the scenes but serving no real purpose. The costuming of the actors is also distracting, an odd combination of generic period clothing for the eight principal characters and stylish modern hipster dress for the supporting roles.
In a similar vein, the show is set in a space that is clearly meant to look like a rehearsal hall, with only a few chairs and a curtain along the back. While that may be fitting for the outburst of imagination as literature comes to life, it is also far too large a space for the action and for the audience, with large sections of the play clustered in a difficult-to-see corner. It is only when the "set" breaks apart like puzzle pieces in the end that we get to see an innovative and exciting use of the stage.
Ultimately, You on the Moors Now doesn't feel quite like a finished product, but that doesn't mean that it isn't an enjoyable show to watch. For a well-read audience that doesn't mind taking quite a few liberties with their favorite works of literature, Theater Reconstruction Ensemble's new piece is an entertaining and irreverent look at our favorite feminist icons of nineteenth-century literature, and how much further their stories could go.
You on the Moors Now plays at HERE through February 28.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.