Fruit medley

"I had a very passionate temper," Victorian poet Christina Rossetti once wrote to an intimate about her childhood. "On one occasion, being rebuked by my dear Mother for some fault, I seized a pair of scissors and ripped up my arm to vent my wrath." It is perhaps a classic conduit of rage for cultured women in the mid-to-late 19th century, turning an "inappropriate" emotion against oneself rather than whatever the cause of that emotion might be. But there is very little about the personality of Rossetti, who died in 1894 at the age of 64, that was de rigueur for women of her era. She pursued religious convictions, eventually settling quite fervently on the Anglican church, with the monomaniacal intensity of a 300 B.C. stoic (foreshadowed by an adolescent breakdown that was diagnosed as "religious mania"). She seemed to have a morbid fear of aggressive masculinity, but courted men quite selectively and bluntly refused those who did not meet her mercurial standards. She worked to aid prostitutes and unwed mothers for a time as a young woman, yet the forbidden sexuality that stigmatized these individuals was as alluring to her as a fat, fuzzy peach dangling swollen from a branch.

I use a fruit simile quite deliberately, for by the time I left Goblin Market, a chamber musical based on Rossetti's most famous poem and presented by Echo Theatre, I was craving fruit cocktail like a dog lusting for table scraps. Peaches, melons, apples, cherries, and strawberries are all alluded to time and again in Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon's adaptation. These are the ripened ovaries being peddled by "goblin men" in a dark, overgrown forest visited by two sisters -- daring, flirtatious Laura (Laurie Vlasich) and timid but determined Lizzie (Dara Whitehead). Some of these goblins look like cats, others like rats, some slither and some crawl, but they are a source of endless fascination and dread for these two young women.

Yep, it's time to break out those Freudian-Jungian guides to dream symbolism and thwarted sexuality. Victorian and feminist scholars have been denouncing and/or employing these methods as reductive/revealing for decades now. Academic riffing has included a traditional psychoanalysis of Rossetti's posthumous text that arrived at the conclusion, where there is little if no evidence, that she was molested by her father. I can't refute this (and they can't confirm it), but Goblin Market does suggest a deliciously ambivalent view of men. Author-composers Pen and Harmon and director Pam Myers-Morgan have wisely chosen not to pump contemporary interpretation into the sensual verbal imagery of Rossetti, but really, you don't need to lift the lid on this pot to sniff what kind of stew's on the simmer. The courtship ritual between the sexes is indeed tinged with fear and desire, and Rossetti and her 20th-century adapters have captured it with an enticing combination -- childhood curiosity and hot pubescent yearning. Echo Theatre and its two robust, sterling-voiced leads do a fine job of batting the ball back and forth between these rackets.

The show opens with two women in Victorian-era bustles and hoopskirts, revisiting a childhood playroom with toys and furniture shrouded by dropcloths. Soon, they strip to their undies and are back in the dark woods where Laura interacts enthusiastically with the goblin men, purchasing not just the aforementioned greengrocer list of fruits but feathers and sequins and strings of pearls in bejeweled boxes. When she finds she does not have a coin to pay the merchants, they tell her she already has gold on top of her head -- she snips off a curl and offers it as barter. Lizzie is more suspicious and more afraid of the never-articulated intentions of the goblin men, but when her sister falls ill because she cannot hear the creatures' calls, Lizzie summons her courage and confronts temptation -- she refuses to eat their wares, but allows the goblins to crush and rub the fruit all over her body so she can bring the flavors back to her sibling.

Backed by a fine live mini-orchestra under the direction of Scott Eckert, the sisters don't wield their performances like those giant styrofoam "We're # 1" victory hands people buy at football games. You don't need an outsized forefinger to have the perfectly surface sexual implications of Rossetti's childhood misadventure pointed out to you. Instead, they settle into the glittery, grainy sandpile of Goblin Market and roll and kick through it like two kids discovering worldly pleasures for the first time. The passion that moved Christina Rossetti to physical violence as a child is given silvery, much more productive expression here, as once again art trumps base human desires but also makes something beautiful of them.

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Jimmy Fowler