Fairy tales take on different meanings for adults. Just think: what would it be like for Snow White to remember her adolescent years? Stories once innocuous can bring back eerie, unsettling memories, or so we learn through the mini-musical “The Goblin Market,” by Polly Pen and Peggy Harman, based on a Victorian children’s poem by Christina Rossetti and on stage courtesy of the New Hampshire Theatre Project through April 4.
The play follows two sisters, Laura (Heather Glenn Wixson) and Lizzie (Linette Strout Miles), as they drift back through memories of late childhood. The two, dressed in heavy Victorian mourning clothing upon their entrance, discard their bulky dresses and the weight of womanhood until they’re down to simple white bloomers, as free as the children they once were.
That freedom isn’t so simple. They’re children teetering on adulthood, and through song and verse, the two venture nightly into the goblin market, where luscious forbidden fruits are for sale. Lizzie turns away from temptation, but Laura cannot resist the offerings from the goblin men, and falls victim to their curse.
Though the play’s roots are Victorian, the subtext isn’t simply a warning about sex.
Director Danielle Howard primarily uses fabric-based props, creating a sensuality that resonates, but does not define Laura’s experience. The brightly colored scarves, juxtaposed against Meghann Beauchamp’s delicate white and gold set design, help develop a stark change in tone. Paired with the swift physical and mental decline of the cursed Laura, it’s easy to imagine a variety of real-life scenarios: sexual temptation, drug addiction, depression, or any all-consuming vice.
With their impeccable vocal talents and beautiful harmonies, Wixson and Miles are stunning. Accompanied by a small, talented string ensemble led by music director Peter Motson on keyboard, the musical component of “Goblin Market” is impressively on point. There is a subtle “Peter and the Wolf”-style mood created by the ensemble, and their efforts are all the more notable considering the musicians can’t see the actors.
Beauchamp’s lighting design also pairs with the music in ways that are, at times, transfixing, particularly during scenes with the goblins — they’re invisible to the audience, and the eerie lighting and use of rhythmic drumming create a sense of dangerous magic. The lighting also works with the seemingly simple, yet very detailed costume design by Jeanné McCartin that transforms a healthy young Laura into an aging, desiccated corpse.
The costumes in “Goblin Market” are particularly interesting. At first glance, they appear plain, almost without thought. But look closer and it’s clear how much character detail they convey. Lizzie, ever vigilant against temptation, is dressed entirely in white and cream colors, while Laura has an almost imperceptible green ribbon woven through her blouse. As the play comes to a close, the costumes become characters of their own.
As Laura and, briefly, the goblins, Wixson transforms beautifully throughout the play, from an adult to an energetic child and beyond. Wixson’s portrayal of the ecstasy that comes with gorging on the forbidden fruit is captivating. She uses her whole body, especially her face, to convey so much beyond what’s included in the dialogue.
Miles does not disappoint as Lizzie. While her performance is more stolid, Lizzie is the anchor to Laura’s wandering spirit. Miles stays true to this role, and navigates her character’s changes with the same impressive ease as Wixson.
It is impossible to ignore the religious influence in “Goblin Market,” namely the fallibility that comes with giving in to forbidden temptations. Lizzie’s eventual sacrifice is Christ-like. But the story deviates from traditional Christian themes by positing that women and sisters can be saviors to one another and don’t need male intervention. “Goblin Market” is beautiful, but it’s not easy. Like a good fairy tale, under its airy surface are hidden depths worth exploring.
New Hampshire Theatre Project performs “Goblin Market” through April 4, with shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at West End Studio Theatre, 959 Islington St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $26, available at 603-431-6644 ext. 5 or nhtheatreproject.org.