By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
When heroines from classic literature rise up, and shed their romantic shackles, it’s a battle for the Brontë’s in Jacklyn Backhaus’ irreverent play, “You on the Moors Now.”
Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March (Shannon Donovan) from “Little Women,” Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett (Julia Small) from “Pride & Prejudice,” Emily Brontë’s Catherine “Cathy” Earnshaw (Madeline Watkins) from “Wuthering Heights” and the titular Jane (Aenya Ulke) from Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” flee their romantic interests in search of new lives. The heroines push through brambles of heather and meet on the moors.
They are being pursued by their respective beaus, Laurie (Austin Trynosky), Mr. Darcy (Bryan Gannon), Heathcliff (Micah Stanek) and Mr. Rochester (Evan Wormald).
In the moors, the blanket bog becomes a battlefield of broken hearts. Laurie is crushed by the highly-spirited Jo. Elizabeth really starts to see Darcy’s pride (and prejudice) as his marriage proposal is rife with backhanded compliments. Poor Cathy is a victim of a misunderstanding and her Heathcliff is too bullheaded to see the truth. Jane gives up everything, including her name, to run free.
Proto feminism blooms into full blown feminism when these women finally, inelegantly take their destiny into their own hands. Not everything goes as planned. Soon, our distaff troupe of merry singletons are living on ‘smores in the moors. Where they found the Hershey bars is anyone’s guess. The play takes place in a nonlinear limbo where all things are possible, including Jane Eyre beating astronomical odds (literally and figuratively).
Characters from the aforementioned books show up, including Mr. Bingley (Wesley Ehle), his sister, Caroline (Jenna Lucht), St. John Rivers (Daniel Murphy), his sister (Ashley Williams) and quite a few additional surprises.
The final conflict of the play rushes to a conclusion (earlier than expected), and it’s a dizzying battle that is also like a dance. It’s also like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s also like Star Wars. It’s also like a whole host of iconic pop culture similes.
Unfortunately, in love and war there are winners and losers. The comedic play turns deadly serious when a beloved heroine becomes the first casualty of the divisive war between the sexes.
“On the Moors Now” is a lyrical story about women’s roles in society. It’s a treatise on equality. It has some laugh out loud moments and a painful sucker punch at the end of the second act. The third act, is a dreamy fairytale ending, with far too much exposition – like Where-Are-They-Now closing credits to “Animal House.”
Director Sheila McKenna does and inspired job of casting these characters. The cast is superb. Donovan’s Jo March and Watkins’ Cathy look as if they stepped out of the beloved books.
Watins is luminescent as Cathy. It’s a beautiful, poignant performance.
Stanek’s Heathcliff is another standout. He is brooding, boisterous and bold.
Ulke’s Jane was particularly feisty. She had excellent comic timing.
The stage is dark. The walls are lined with persimmon-colored parchment with burnt and blackened edges. It’s as if a love letter was hastily thrown on a campfire, salvaged at the last possible instant and tacked to the wall. Kudos to scenic designer Tucker Topel.
The gothic romantics were lavishly adorned by Terra Marie Skirtich. The costumes were ethereal and timeless, much like the play itself. It looked as if the characters stepped out of a Dr. Who episode, each player wearing clothes that were mixed and matched from various eras throughout history.
Note: A comprehensive knowledge of the female authors of the 19th century is desired but not required.
“You on the Moors Now” is a funny yet poignant story of female empowerment. It’s for anyone who has ever wished to rush into the vault and stay Romeo’s hand when he attempts to kill himself before Juliet wakes. Or better yet, waiting for Juliet to rise and say, “He’s not worth dying over.”
“You on the Moors Now” is at the Studio Theater in the Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information, click here.