By Christina Rosetti; Adapted by Jennifer Jewell and Mark Cabus
Directed by Mark Cabus and Patrick Mulryan
Produced by JJewell Productions
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Ran through 7.16.17
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Ran Xia on 7.18.17
Jennifer Jewell in Goblin Market. Photo by Lee Wexler.
BOTTOM LINE: A sincere solo rendition of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market reset in the Appalachians.
Goblin Market has always been the most fascinating of Christina Rossetti’s works, with its motifs and polarizing themes. Accompanied by her exquisite illustrations by Rossetti's brother Dante Gabriel, the poem depicts in ferocious saturation the texture and delicious vibrancy of the fruits from a Goblin market. It’s a Pre-Raphaelite painting in text form, and a true celebration of Rossetti’s imagination.
The story is an allegorical one: sisters Laura and Lizzie live together in the hills near a stream, and Goblin men come bearing fruits of every kind, luring the girls to “come buy.” Laura succumbs to the temptation and exchanges the fruits with a strand of her golden hair and a pearly tear, while faithful Lizzie remains unmoved by the lusty voices of the goblins. After her initial encounter with the goblin men, however, Laura can no longer hear the goblin’s cry, and soon withers from her yearning. There’s a happy ending to the story, where Lizzie sets off to search for the goblins and brings back antidotes in order to save her sister.
Jennifer Jewell’s imagination is equally unbeatable, and with a simple quilt, she transforms the blank stage into the Appalachian village where, aided by a touch of bluegrass music by Chris Tench, Jewell sets the story. Jewell plays both sisters Laura and Lizzie, and also seamlessly physicalizes the menagerie of goblins in bizarre forms. Although she's a solo presence, the relationship between the two sisters is palpable as the empty space beneath Jewell’s shawl becomes the other half of the sibling pair. With a warm southern twang, Jewell's deep voice, reminiscent of a young Glenn Close, brings this mystical tale—written by the daughter of an Italian expat at the height of Victorian England—to a somewhat equally reserved American south, where the society is largely driven by religion.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about this poem's symbolic message, which vaguely propagates abstinence. Whether it comes from Rossetti’s own strong affiliation with her religion (which led to her breaking off her engagements twice), or the societal oppression of women of her time, Goblin Market clearly suggests the monstrosity of male temptation of women, and the subsequent detrimental effects. The “forbidden fruit,” while delicious, ultimately is a negative influence that strips women, in this case Laura, of their innocence and contentment. It could very well become a toxic story masked as a cautionary tale, a misguided sex-ed guidebook that demonizes instead of illuminates. Although never commented on, sisters Laura and Lizzie are very likely based on Lizzie Siddal and Christina herself: the former wasted away after becoming enraptured by the lifestyle of Dante Gabriel and his Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and eventually passed away while still too young.
However, there is indeed more to the story. Lizzie's strength and will to save her sister very much embodies the contemporary spirit of “nevertheless, she persisted.” The stubborn determination of a woman who remains at her sister’s side through trauma is an argument for the story's continued relevance. In a time of heightened awareness of gender equality, yet also one where women are constantly the victims of sexual assault (sometimes invisible), it’s important to celebrate this message of hope and strength that’s called sisterhood.
I applaud director Mark Cabus’ simplicity in staging the piece, which showcases Jewell’s nuanced performance. The rich tale of womanhood and bond between sisters is Rossetti’s gift for herself, and it still offers much to chew on today.
(Goblin Market played at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through July 16, 2017. The running time was 1 hour without an intermission. Tickets were $15. It will run in August 2017 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.)
Goblin Market is adapted by Jennifer Jewell and Mark Cabus, based on the poem by Christina Rossetti. Performed by Jennifer Jewell. Directed by Mark Cabus. Co-director is Patrick Mulryan. Choreography is by Allison Plamondon. Lighting Design is by G. Warren Stiles. Original Music is by Chris Trench. Costume Design is by Nancy Dement. Mixing and Mastering is by Brett Ryan Stewart & The Sounds Shelter. Production Coordinator is Adam Boncz. Assistant Stage Manager is Bridge Coffman. Quilt is by Christine Economos.