Fashioned as a chamber musical by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon, Goblin Market is taken from a florid pre-Raphaelite narrative poem of 1862 by Christina Rossetti that equates female sexuality with enchanted forests full of merchant goblins hawking forbidden fruit. Call the work a morality tale of temptation and resistance, of loyalty and sacrifice. Yet the opening-night consensus on this fevered stage translation was that the audience was watching a Victoria's Secret-sponsored pageant on the joys of Victorian undergarments. Onstage, Rossetti's flowery metaphors have metamorphosed into eroticized, precocious schoolgirls somewhere between Alice and Lolita, straddling hobbyhorses and languidly reclining on dollhouses. One would have to go back to Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby to find such a heartfelt endorsement of the erotic joys of young girlhood.
Shockingly enough, the poem can be found in the children's literature department of your local library. Yet any preteen who understands the ramifications of the poet's pre-Freudian jitters concerning penetration ("She thought of Jeanie in her grave, who should have been a bride; but who for joys brides hope to have fell sick and died in her gay prime . . .") should be packed off to either reform school or Harvard.
In her bio, co-creator Polly Pen claims Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe as her muses. Add rarefied composer of French chanson Gabriel Fauré, and we can see the blueprint for her musical appropriation of Rossetti: unspoken terrors rendered into thick Victorian verse, the innocent symbols of childhood twisted into dark eroticism, nubile girls carrying teddy bears and climbing vines, squeezing the juice of forbidden fruit over their heaving bosoms while singing tortured art songs of the salon.
Stretching a fragile conceit, a wisp of a fable, into a literal 90 minutes makes for tenuous entertainment. Only the opening and closing have substance; the middle is no more filling than a fevered dream. One of the creator's best inventions is having Rossetti's sisters, Laura (Lori Scarlett) and Lizzie (Sandra Simon), enter as starched Victorian matrons in forbidding black crinolines. Returning to the nursery of their childhood, they rekindle the memories of Laura's brush with evil. Emerging from the mysterious backlit doors of Russ Borski's gothic wedding-cake set, they seem to be returning to life from mysterious nether regions.
Uncovering the dusty toys of their long-ago youth, they return to their childhood by peeling off layers of petticoats, down to their chemises and bloomers. Costumer Charlotte M. Yetman's intricate Victorian re-creations become the third leading character of the evening. Their nursery becomes a woodland glen inhabited by bizarre, unseen Fujimura-style goblins, who entice them with sparkling fruit and promises of the unimagined ecstasy that lingers between goblin loins. The girls flounce around in their undies as if auditioning for positions in the Folies Bergères. Laura partakes of the forbidden fruit, while sister Lizzie negotiates with the libidinous woodland creatures to save Laura from inexorably falling under their spell.
Director Victoria Bussert is noted for italicizing the erotic impulses that drive a show. Here, she crop-dusts everything within an inch of its life with a smothering sexuality. Sandra Simon and Lori Scarlett are dedicated musical theater warriors, willing to defend the purple passions of their roles with the ferocity of twin Joans of Arc. Scarlett is wild and tawny, like a druid high priestess. Simon is creamy and impassioned, like an Arthurian damsel. Together they produce an alchemy to make us forget they are the entire guest list of an overheated costume party.
One could speculate whether Goblin Market is more a fable about reconciling the fervent erotic yearnings of adolescence with the severe realities of adulthood, or a tale of a couple of Edwardian showgirls on a tour of Bedlam. But this all comes under the heading of subtext, and performing on such unclear ground is mighty dangerous; even the most accomplished performers are destined to drown in such a sea of perfumed metaphors.