Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
The basics of the story are that two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, live together in the country. They have to go down to a brook to get water every day, and at some distance they hear goblin men (troll-like creatures with animal features) hawking their ripe fruits ("Come buy, come buy," they cry). Lizzie, the cautious one, warns her sister to stay away from the goblins, but Laura succumbs and tastes their fruit. She undergoes a drastic change and starts wasting away. When she is on the verge of death, Lizzie approaches the goblins in order to buy fruit to take home to Laura in hopes that it will save her life. Lizzie refuses to eat the fruit, so they assault her and smear it all over her. She escapes, gets back to Laura, and tells her to lick the juices off her skin. Laura does, goes into what appears to be a withdrawal episode, but then the next morning she is fine and back to normal.
The story is weird, unsettling, and presumably metaphorical. Despite the Archibald MacLeish aphorism that "A poem should not mean/But be," I can't help thinking that there is some symbolism lurking in "Goblin Market." Rossetti, however, never let on what she intended the poem to mean, and it has been the subject of various interpretations ever since. My guess is that it's about drug addiction, with salvation through Jesus Christ ("Eat me, drink me, love me" says Lizzie to Laura) and a hint of incestuous lesbianism (Lizzie to Laura, again: "Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices").
By sheer serendipity, Aux Dog Theatre is now staging a theatrical version of Goblin Market. This is an adaptation by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon, with music by Polly Pen. Most of the poem is recited verbatim by the two characters, but there are songs with new lyrics that have been added. The adapters changed the ending (which is better than the ending in the poem, I think) and have added ghostly scenes as a framing device, which provide the opportunity for a couple of scary stage moments.
However, does this adaptation succeed as a stand-alone piece of theater? Not completely. I don't think you could figure out what is happening if you are not familiar with the poem beforehand. If you already know the story, it's comprehensible, but I'm not fond of theatrical works that mystify the unprepared audience. I acknowledge that this is more a mood piece than a plot-driven one, but it's hard to get into the mood when you're all the time trying to figure out what's going on.
I found the opening scene off-putting, with its endless Philip Glass-like recitation of the myriad fruits that the goblins have on offer. After this, however, most of the staging is effective, and the last couple minutes of this one-act play are terrific. The music is played live, and excellently, by Nathaniel Flake, but the songs are not memorable (granted, this was my first hearing of them). I think the show might be even better without the new lyrics; just use Rossetti's verse, and have subtle minor-key music in the background even more.
This play requires two fine actors who can also sing, and we have them here in Kir Kipness (Lizzie) and Lisa Fenstermacher (Laura). Kir looks like she just stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, and she has a pure high voice, perfect for this rarefied material. Lisa has an excellent voice, too, but at times she slips into Broadway belting. Ethel Merman came to mind, and this is definitely not an Ethel Merman kind of show.
It turns out that this is not an easy play to stage technically: It has projections and sound cues and lighting effects that have to be perfectly executed, and they are. Congratulations to Kyle King (lighting), Casey Mraz (sound design), Mary Jonaitis (projections), and Jaime Pardo (costumes). The biggest kudos go to VJ Liberatori, the director, for gathering together and overseeing a fine cast and crew, but especially for having the daring to present a non-traditional play with little prospect of drawing a big audience. Aux Dog Theatre, to its great credit, doesn't play it safe.
I recommend Goblin Market, but with this proviso: Read the poem first.
Goblin Market, a musical play by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon based on Christina Rossetti's poem, directed by VJ Liberatori, is being presented at Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill in Albuquerque. 3011 Monte Vista NE, just north of Central Ave. Through November 13, 2016. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.auxdog.com or 505-254-7716.