Next Theatre Company

“It looks like The Cherry Orchard,” said my friend as we took our seats, of the set for Next Theatre’s Goblin Market. It was a plain and spacious 19th-century nursery, its wide windows looking out upon bare-limbed trees, its few pieces of furniture draped with white sheets–a long-sealed storehouse of childhood memories and fantasies. The comparison was apt: Goblin Market is all about losing your cherry in the orchard.

Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon’s one-act work–more a staged cantata than a musical–is based on Christina Rossetti’s 1862 children’s poem. The verse story tells of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who are enticed by a magical and menacing group of “goblin fruit merchant men” offering all sorts of succulent delights. Lizzie resists, but Laura succumbs. “She never tasted such [fruit] before,” Rossetti writes, “. . . she sucked until her lips were sore.” But the forbidden fruit, though “honey to the throat,” is “poison in the blood”; in the days after her night of indulgence, Laura sinks into a wasting enervation, and it is up to the virtuous Lizzie to redeem her dissipated sister. This she does by herself visiting the goblin market, where she is assaulted by the little monsters, who pelt her with their fruit; battered but unbroken, she heads back home and makes Laura lick the goblin juice off her body. The poison is its own antidote, and the happy family is restored.

We are talking symbolism city here, of course. Rossetti was a devout Anglican (she rejected marriage in favor of spiritual purity, we are told) whose work delineated themes of Christian self-sacrifice, antisensuality, and family devotion. Goblin Market, her first widely published work (written when she was 31), met with popular approval as a cautionary moral tale told in the fanciful terms a child could enjoy without fully understanding.

Today, Goblin Market’s psychosexual allegory seems startlingly blatant and ripe for mockery. What Pen and Harmon have brought instead to the work is love. While they don’t shy away from the themes of seduction and rape, sin and redemption, the adapters concentrate primarily on evoking the innocence of childhood and the longing with which a sophisticated, worldly-wise adult can feel for that lost state. The effect is, in its elegant and restrained way, incredibly potent.

The action in Goblin Market takes place entirely within Laura’s and Lizzie’s own imaginations. As the play begins, they enter in silence, adult women returning to their old nursery. A doll, a music box, and a childhood memory game (Rossetti’s catalog of fruits, here cleverly turned into a Gertrude Steinian bout of wordplay) unlock the women’s shared past; the rest of the story is enacted as a child’s game of make-believe. Are they telling us about something that really happened to them, or merely reliving a fantasy they once made up? The ambiguity is the point, as Laura and Lizzie dart and climb about the room and “magically” transform it (with the aid of Robert G. Smith’s perfect lighting) into a terrifying hidden orchard inhabited by funny-ugly little monster-men (which we, of course, never see). The sisters’ interplay also reinforces a sense of womanly solidarity that undercuts the text’s potentially implicit antifeminism, while the inherent antisexual message is, thankfully, subsumed into a larger concern with the nature of love.

The simplicity of the stage action leaves the audience’s mind clear for Goblin Market’s major selling point: Polly Pen’s shimmering, melodic, beautifully structured score. Filled with echoes of baroque and classical opera, nursery songs and Anglican hymns–and dotted with cannily chosen interpolations of period music and lyrics (Brahms, Lotti, John Gay)–the graceful and exuberant vocal and orchestral writing prove that there are more possibilities in modern musical theater than Stephen Sondheim’s pointed tartness and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s thudding simple-mindedness. Pen (a Chicago-bred actress and writer–she played the female lead in the original Grease at Kingston Mines here) combines an academic’s knowledge of musical style with a true songsmith’s pleasure in responding to, not obfuscating, the text and in challenging her performers to stretch their skill while guaranteeing them the payoff of achievement. It’s dazzling work and a joy to listen to.

Lynne DuFresne and Kathy Taylor handle the vocally taxing roles of Laura and Lizzie with great aplomb; DuFresne makes a special impact as Laura because of her plain-beautiful looks–she’s the very image of Rossettian, Pre-Raphaelite girlish innocence. Robert G. Smith’s set and lights are, as I’ve said, perfection–there are a few surprises in addition to what I’ve already described, and the final image is a master stroke that I’ll leave for you to discover. Jeffrey Lewis’s chamber orchestrations for keyboards, winds, cello, harp, and percussion are impeccable, and his musical direction is too–the phrasings of the two women’s duets are right on the mark.

I missed just one thing from this production: Harriet Spizziri’s staging seemed to me a little too restrained and polite. In respecting the adapters’ refusal to indulge in camp or parody or overstatement, Spizziri seems to have gone too far in the other direction: the production falls short of the urgency and excitement that Rossetti’s text and Pen’s score suggest. This is a story that moves quickly (the show is only 70 minutes) from childish high-spiritedness to spooky mystery to erotic awakening to real terror, but the performance I saw (perhaps it was a “down” one) never felt like it left the nursery. This is a real problem but a fixable one, mainly a matter of energy; it certainly should not dissuade anyone from experiencing this marvelous, quite original musical theater gem.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.