In Pride and Prejudice, the indignant and self-sufficient Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr. Darcy’s first marriage proposal, believing him to be the cause of her sister’s failed romance with his friend Bingley. Overwhelmed with the confusion of her existing relationships, she departs for London with her aunt and uncle and slowly learns the truth about Darcy’s benevolent nature, as well as how to temper her severe perceptions with optimistic prudence.
Lizzie, as well as many of her fellow 19th century heroines, must first encounter what she doesn’t want and/or err in her decision-making in order to ultimately make the right decision for her future. Jane Eyre runs from Rochester and finds a new life and new identity on the tumultuous moors, returning to Rochester some time later under vastly different circumstances and with new self-knowledge. Jo March (Little Women) rejects the proposal of her childhood friend Laurie, a seemingly perfect fit for her, and only finds happiness with Professor Bhaer after much anxiety and confusion. Cathy (Wuthering Heights) refuses to marry the wild, passionate Heathcliff, choosing instead the mild, bourgeois Edgar.
It’s in this tumultuous haze between disillusionment and satisfaction that Jaclyn Backhaus’s You On The Moors Now places us. Performed by the Theater Reconstruction Ensemble at HERE Arts Center and directed by TRE founder John Kurzynowski, the play begins with a familiar, modern retelling of these classic literary denials. One by one, these young women reject their marriage proposals, mixing contemporary and humorous language with quotes from the original text. Laurie, for example, opts for less romantic efforts to get Jo’s attention: “So here’s the thing, bitch!” then moving into a back-and-forth chorus of “You shut up!” with Jo. The scenes are witty and endearing, swapping (what some might call) rigid, antiquated dialogue for an expressive, impulsive, and youthful meltdown of sorts. The rejections aren’t always the best decisions and the women are fickle and hot-headed with their emotions. You On The Moors Now isn’t so much about women escaping the confining conditions of their love lives but rather about the seemingly never-ending errors and distractions on the road to happiness.
After a strong first half, the second begins to falter. The play departs drastically from the original texts. Set and time no longer exist for the characters– they are unhinged from the 19th century. The women run away from their homes and unite on the moors, forming a coalition to protect their independence. They avoid their regrets and pursue other life goals, such as careers in space exploration and marketing. If we thought that Lizzie and Jane’s choices weren’t difficult enough, imagine if their Victorian limitations disappeared. Throw professional aspirations and other freedoms not previously granted to these women into the mix. Let them figure out which of their thoughts and emotions are most genuine in a contemporary culture saturated with images of other people’s successes and failures. The modern romantic landscape is much like getting lost on the moors.
The men desperately try to retrieve the four women, employing other male literary characters like Edgar, St.John, and Jo’s mother to track them down. The plot loses sight of it focus and begins to sound more like fan fiction (bad fan fiction at that) than a coherent narrative. It’s not that departure from the original texts is not invited. And likewise, I understood the frenzied, rushed nature of the play’s middle act to represent the noncommittal confusion and anxiety of the characters’ emotional lives. Theoretically, the play’s structure and content work so intuitively together– I just wished the second half’s script had something more unique and less cumbersome to say. My dissatisfaction with the direction of the play culminated in the final act, a long scene in which the actors sit in a single line on stage and perform what is essentially a table-reading of the resolution. Leather-bound book in hand, Cathy acts as narrator, reading aloud several pages of quite shallow fiction detailing the characters’ reunion.
You On The Moors Now is an insightful meditation on living with the uncertainty of our actions and the anxiety of missed love. With a tighter, more cohesive second half, I can see Backhaus’s play become a powerful and nuanced piece.
You On The Moors Now plays at HERE Arts through February 28. Tickets Here.
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