British lit professors often pitch Christina Rossetti’s dark, erotic, and kinda twisted fantasy poem, "Goblin Market," as pure feminist subversion. A woman writing explicitly about sex would have scandalized the supposedly uptight Victorians, and so in the poem Rossetti smartly veils her comically bawdy imagery and her lesbian agenda with an apparently conservative message about abstinence and the joys of wholesome sisterhood.
When I wasn’t luxuriating in the language that Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon so wonderfully preserve in this musical adaptation of the poem, I was busy being generally impressed as I watched four women with incredible bone structure sing like bells and leap around the stage like antelopes as a serviceable quintet played pleasant period music in Sound Theatre’s production.
Designer Montana Tippett sets us in a midnight blue Victorian-era living room beside an enchanted glade. The two young women, Laura (who is played on alternate nights by Miranda Troutt and Kelly Mak) and Lizzy (ditto with Claire Marx and Yu-Ping Davis), horse around and banter in totally non-flirtatious ways, when they hear the meaning-rich fruit-call of goblins who work at the market: “Come buy,” they sing, “Come buy.”
But the young women remember the tale of an old friend who died after eating the fruit the goblins sell, or, as Rossetti has it, for experiencing “joys brides hope to have,” and say:
We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?
The tension from there on out is pretty simple: Are these nice Victorian ladies going to metaphorically bone these dirty goblins, who are also kind of confusingly played by nice young women in glittering robes that read more funtimes than creepytimes, or will they marry each other instead?
This production really turns up the message of the importance of female solidarity. You understand pretty early on in the show that this is a story about talented women helping each other out in a world full of goblin men who generally disgust them but whose fruits they find attractive for animal reasons. And no matter how much these women endure, no matter how much they progress, the dark and rapacious patriarchy will always threaten to invade whatever house of reason and stability they build for themselves.
The musical would have been perfect programming if Clinton won the White House. In that context, it would have served as a perfectly timed warning that the work of women's lib isn't over the moment the country elects a woman as president. But in the context of our pussy-grabbing present, the subversion here felt quaint and academic to me.
But the pleasantries of this one-act show—the goofy sexual language, the canon singing, the jaunty dancing—provided a welcomely weird and (blissfully brief) escape from the madness of my Twitter feed.