It's a fascinating premise: Get the leading female characters of Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Little Women together in one room and start them talking about relationships and the patriarchal world that limits the way they love. Jacklyn Backhaus has done just that in You on the Moors Now, a provocative but fragmented production running at HERE under John Kurzynowski's direction. Though the play manages to engage with its examination of gender norms and the usefulness (perhaps need) of defying them, the show's erratic storytelling and too-long denouement can prove trying to the most sympathetic audience member.
The play begins with four couples from the above-mentioned novels stationed in 19th-century period dress at one end of the wide stage, with dimly lit red velvet curtains (lighting by Marika Kent; set and costumes by Joseph Wolfslau) creating an ominous gothic feel. The four women rise from their chairs, leaving the men standing behind, and convene to discuss their relationships. We meet Cathy (Anastasia Olowin), Jane (Sam Corbin), Lizzie (Kelly Rogers), and Jo (Lauren Swan-Potras), who don't care for the way their men treat them.
The women speak elliptically in modern idiom (jarringly using the f-word now and then) about revolting against their suitors — and from that point, the play devolves into a largely incomprehensible series of scenes that employ other characters from these books in enacting a "war" against conventionality and sexist ways of wooing. The play also moves surrealistically back and forth from the past to the present. It's all capped off with Cathy seated and reading (for about 30 minutes) from a book about the aftermath of the war, in which all the characters have reconciled, and artifacts of their battles are housed in a museum. We learn also that Jane Eyre has become an astronaut.
Experimental theater is one thing, but director Kurzynowski turns Backhaus' convoluted plot into an exercise in audience endurance — clocking in at nearly two intermission-less hours. The promising premise evaporates as the story twists and turns into a mass of confusing scenes and interludes that perplex more than they illuminate. A few performances deliver moments of entertainment to the mind-boggling plot. Sam Corbin offers a funny, histrionic Jane Eyre trying to escape from the clutches of Rochester (Jon Riddleberger), and Preston Martin's equally excitable Mr. Darcy (almost certainly homosexual in Backhaus' retelling) elicits consistent laughs. The long-haired Harlan Alford gives a wonderfully brooding Heathcliff who, together with Olowin as Cathy, might have made a fine foundation for a play on this topic without any of the other characters.
But that's not enough to make You on the Moors Now a satisfying theater experience. To its credit, the play attempts to tackle issues of love and relationships in an imaginative way and answer questions about why men and women feel bound to follow prescribed rules regarding courtship. Modern-day romantics look back at these novels for examples of what love should be like — and dismantling those sometimes sexist, often unrealizable myths is worthwhile. Things don't turn out so bad after all, the play implies, when you decide to write your own story. But the point of your story might be lost if your audience is too confused to listen.
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