Sensuous excess comes to life in Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem “Goblin Market, ” with proliferation of rhymes, synonyms, luscious lists of fruits and “figs to fill your mouth.” It’s easy to imagine the Victorians being titillated by lines such as “she suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more/Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;/She sucked until her lips were sore.” Even reading the poem today, one is struck by the carnal language used to tell the story of two sisters: Laura, who indulges in fruit sold by the goblin men, sucking “their fruit globes fair and red” and Lizzie, who “would not open lip from lip” lest the goblins “cram a mouthful in.” Like any good Victorian lesson, indulgent Laura nearly perishes while Lizzie saves her with a heroic act of abstinence.
Unfortunately, the sensuous excess that makes Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” so delectable fails to shine through the musical staging of the poem put on by Black Button Eyes Productions at Collaboraction. Falling flat against the ornate and excessive language, a simple set leaning toward realism portrays shelves full of Victorian dolls and a small bed where the two sisters sleep “cheek to cheek and breast to breast.”
Yet, sensuality is not entirely lost in the production; it survives in the musical performances. Laura (Stephanie Stockstill) and Lizzie (Jennifer T. Grubb) have incredible operatic ranges with which they sweetly harmonize and deftly trill. Sensuousness peaks in the production in the musical number sung by Laura as she eats the goblin men’s fruit and cascades up and down dizzying scales to sing praises of “Plump unpeck’d cherries/Melons and raspberries,” all the while dancing suggestively around stage.
The music, written by Polly Pen, applies Rossetti’s lines almost verbatim but awkwardly matches the poem’s strange meter which might explain why, the next morning, not a single tune from the show remains in my head. Still, an impressive live accompaniment adds to the rich though forgettable acoustic experience. Ultimately, it might be more memorable to read the poem for yourself in a plump armchair, enjoying “apples and quinces” in the comfort of your own home. (Joy Miller)
Black Button Eyes Productions, Pentagon Theater at Collaboraction, Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 North Milwaukee, 3rd Floor, goblinmarketchicago.com. $25. Through October 31.