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The actors behind the animals in The Moors
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles.
How do you play a massive mastiff – one with a tender heart, cosmic curiosity, and killer instincts? Or how about a dubious moorhen who, despite her typical caution in life, has fallen for someone outside her species?
Those peculiar questions are facing Andrew Garman and Teresa Avia Lim, who play the aforementioned animals in the Playwrights Realm production of Jen Silverman's dark comedy The Moors. (The show is running through March 25 at the Duke on 42nd Street.)
Asked about the process of playing a large dog, Garman says, "Being six-foot-two helps a lot." It was helpful, too, that he grew up with a big mutt: "Shelby, who was a very large chow mix, was territorial, loyal, and pretty much a homebody. He was a noble dog."
However, he adds, "the dog aspect of the [nameless mastiff in the play] is less the priority. It's more about the character: the giant heart of the dog and the search for love and meaning and God and all those difficult questions. It feels all-encompassing. He feels the weight of all dogs and all human beings and the weight of the world."
The mastiff is dressed in 19th century garb – "and not anything necessarily 'dog-like,'" Garman notes – by costume designer Anita Yavich. "There's an interesting overlap between the physical world that we're building, which sort of allows for dog postures. But you won't know immediately that it's a dog on that set."
That's evident in the opening scene, when the mastiff passively lays off to the side in the parlor while taking in everything that's happening in the scene.
The play is a Victorian Gothic tale with a modern sensibility. A rolling fog on the Northern English moors surrounds a gloomy old mansion, which is occupied by two spinster sisters who are living alone after the death of their father. They await the arrival of a governess to take care of an unseen child. It's a 'Jane Eerie' place of secret longings, furtive looks, and deep thoughts, and it's enriched by set designer Dane Laffrey, lighting designer Jen Schriever, and sound designer M.L. Dogg. (No animal puns intended there.)
This mood even impacts the animals. "In particular, it's [the mastiff's] loneliness in relationship to his role in the family now that the men of the estate are gone," Garman says. "So it's about discovering what relationship he had with the head of the house and what he feels now about life without him. There's a certain rural innocence about a giant worker dog on the moors who has spent a life hunting and guarding the homestead."
It's a surprise, then, when the mastiff "starts asking existential questions when he meets and falls in love with a game hen, discussing the meaning of life and happiness."
For Lim, playing the hen means capturing the emotional complexity of this unlikely relationship. After all, a tiny fowl might be naturally uneasy around a giant hunter, no matter how much she fancies him. "I approach her character like I would a human," says the actress. "It also helps that I relate to her quite a bit, too, so that makes it easier to get into her body. That's why I'm working on the human aspect first, so it will be easier to add the animal touches after."
She continues, "They don't want me to go full-out bird, but have somewhat subtle little flashes of it by showing her sprightliness, her quick-footedness. There will just be hints of bird-like behavior."
Still, there's a sense of liberation is playing outside your species, she says. "You're a little more bound up when you play someone human. Playing an animal gives you the freedom to explore a little bit more. And it's a lot of fun, too."
Photos by Joe Chea. To photo: Andrew Garman and Teresa Avia Lim.
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