BWW Reviews: Connecticut Repertory Theatre's GOBLIN MARKET is a Fairy Tale in Need of Magic
Theatre: Connecticut Repertory Theatre Studio Works Series
Location: Studio Theatre, 820 Bolton Road, University of Connecticut Campus, Storrs, CT
Production: Script and Puppet Design by Penny Benson; Directed by Margarita Blush; Scenic Design by Geoff Ehrendreich; Lighting Design by Hayley Kasper; Costume Design by Xiachen Zhou; Sound Design by Daniel Bria; Music Composition by Charles Turner. Through April 6; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets $7-$37, visit www.crt.uconn.edu or call (860) 486-2113.
Is there anything sweeter than forbidden fruit? Poor Adam and Eve found out the hard way that certain tasty treats are best left alone. Christina Rossetti's 1859 poem Goblin Market finds two sisters tempted to sample the fresh produce of some naughty goblins, subbing in for Eden's serpent. Connecticut Repertory Theatre's Studio Works Series offers a newly dramatized trip to the Goblin Market that is less tempting and juicy than one would hope.
Liberally adapted by UConn Puppetry MFA student Penny Benson, CRT's production squeezes the magic out of Rossetti's tale and replaces it with heavy-handed symbolism and an awkward production. Where the source material focuses essentially on the two sisters (renamed Laurie and Elizabeth and portrayed by Alyson Danielczuk and Kaitlyn Gorman) discovering the temptations and perils of sex, Benson's Goblin Market focuses on alienation and connection.
To add some dramatic heft to the tale, the playwright adds new characters. The two sisters, instead of living on their own by a stream, have arrived at the home of an aristocratic bully, Dirk Weston, portrayed stiffly by Emmett McMullan. Aside from being plagued by the nightly "fruit-call" of the nearby goblins, Dirk cannot stand to hear his own baby crying. His grief-stricken wife Jane, played by Colleen Labella, has forsaken her responsibilities as a mother to their newborn child. Elizabeth has been called into service as an au pair and arrives with sister in tow to free the new parents up so they can return to ignoring each other.
Despite proximity to Dirk's invention of protective earmuffs called "aurricades" that block out pesky goblins and babies, Laurie is lured out into the woods and succumbs to the goblins' fruit market. What is intended to be a cautionary fable or a fairy tale about the lure of male sexuality devolves into something muddled, confusing and not altogether convincing in Benson's hands.
Director Margarita Blush slows the action down with too many convoluted transitions and speeds things up in the moments where the show should breathe. The acting in the production is wildly uneven. Shadow theatre sequences provide visual excitement, but confuse the storytelling.
The costumes by Xiachen Zhou attempt to fuse Victorian England with Asian accents and end up further muddling the whole enterprise. The busy-ness of the scenery - pulled, pushed and swirled by several actors - feels like too much on UConn Studio Theatre's small stage. Worse, it gobbles attention away from what we most want to see: the goblins. And the times that the goblins are onstage are the moments where Benson's production plays best.
Looking like mutated characters from The Wind in the Willows, this septet of goblins lives in the woods, terrorizing the residents of the nearby township. Designed to be operated Bunraku-style with the puppeteers visible in black garb, Benson's puppets are enchanting and somewhat menacing. The physicality and vocal performances by the puppeteers suddenly enlivens the whole affair. For the ten minutes or so that they occupy the stage, Goblin Market achieves its potential as a fairytale. Perhaps the production succeeds best in these scenes because it adheres most closely to Rossetti's text. Yet, the goblins create a big problem: we never truly understand their motivation.
Why do the goblins want to lure people to their doom? In Rossetti's poem, they are clearly referred to as goblin men, offering forbidden delights to young women who, once deflowered, die a horrible death in true Victorian fashion. Two gravediggers, played wittily as traditional Shakespearean fops by Brian Sullivan and Harrison Howard Haney, fear the lure of the goblins, but we never truly understand what these gamboling imps really represent.
By embellishing the poem with added characters, symbolism and a theme of disconnectedness, CRT's Goblin Market ends up feeling like a long 65 minutes. The production design's hit-you-over-the-head use of rope, string and yarn extends from the scenery to the props and the costumes. We get it: they are all unraveling when they should be bound together. Oddly, the only thing without strings in this production are the puppets.