Passion Fruit

ACTs "chamber musical" makes a star out of its director.

SEATTLE THEATER NEEDS a better star systema way of recognizing extraordinary talent in the performing arts and celebrating it. Exceptional actors, playwrights, designers, and directors are rarely recognized and usually scrabble for work just like everyone else.

Goblin Market

A Contemporary Theater till July 4th

Which makes ACT all the more praiseworthy for giving a slot to local director Nikki Appino. Appino, whos been doing work in Seattle with her own company, House of Dames, since 1992, has a visual sense for theater thats pretty much unsurpassed in this town. With a penchant for intricate postmodern texts, she tends to clothe the language of ideas in vast and mysterious images. Her habitual use of smoke machines (the creation of clouds of evocative atmosphere from the often mundane workings of live theater) is in some ways an apt metaphor for her craft.

Her ACT debut with the "chamber musical" Goblin Market, adapted by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon from the long poem by Christina Rossetti, is in the main an inspired choice. Rossettis 1857 poem is a favorite of literary scholars, a language-rich piece about a pair of sisters who encounter a group of "goblin men" who entice Laura, the more daring of the two, to buy some of their fruits. After she has "sucked until her lips were sore" (the first ones free, kid), these Pre-Raphaelite pushers withdraw, and she sickens and withers. Her more cautious sister Lizzie heads back to the market and tricks the elves into giving her an antidote to save her sibling.

As several commentators have said, the actual meaning of Goblin Market is tantalizingly elusive. What exactly are the fruits that threaten the goodness of the girls? Sex? Lesbian sex? Sexual abuse? Drugs? Where are the grown-ups in the world of these children? And if the poem is a critique of the stifling oppression of Victorian society, why is it that the heroine is the good girl who does not taste the forbidden fruit? Its a much richer and intriguing text than Appino has often worked with, but she does it proud.

In conversation, Appino has spoken about the difficult task of expressing the erotic on stage, though some might think the material in this casetwo attractive performers in Victorian underwear saying things like "Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices/Squeezed from goblin fruits for you" to each otherwouldnt pose much of a challenge. But it is true that the almost breathless, overly loaded nature of eroticism in the Victorian era is a difficult atmosphere to catch, and by and large Appino and her cast (the silver-voiced Beth DeVries as Laura and the felicitously feline Rachel Luttrell as Lizzie) do a fine job of it.

The music comes from a mishmash of sources, including Italian opera (Antonio Lotti), classical (Brahms), and a conscious pastiche of music from the Victorian eraincluding "Like a Lily," which has the sort of triumphant sound reminiscent of a Gilbert and Sullivan patriotic anthem. Notwithstanding its disparate sources, theres a cohesiveness to the score that evokes a long-ago music recital, and the fine voices of the performers deftly handle its technical demands.

The main stamp that Appino places on the show is a visual one, and given the vast toy-chest of ACTs scene shop and the work of designers Dan Corson (set, lighting) and Frances Kenny (costumes), shes clearly having a ball. An on-stage pool bubbles, mists, and even produces a burst of flame. Luminescent cat-tails grow up from the stage, a doll house lights up and billows smoke, and golden platters of fruit materialize under white sheets. Its a poetic magic show, and fills out the evening far past the considerable talents of her cast.

Occasionally theres a visual misfire. A floor mural of a pomegranate that elicits a delighted giggle from the girls would probably cause screams of terror in a nursery; it looks like the slimy footprint of an H.P. Lovecraft creation. Then theres the sudden appearance of an aluminum emergency ladder, winched up from the stage, that departs with all the elegance of a boa constrictor disappearing up an air shaft.

In fact, if theres an overall problem to the staging of the Goblin Market, its that the piece is more suited for a small chamber space than one of ACTs mainstages. Occasionally Appino seems to be working hard to fill the stage with big images (vast drapes, the bubbling pool, even a giant dangling beetle) that add little to the action. But expecting Appino, whose regular venues include warehouses and airplane hangars, to ask for a small venue would be like inviting Patton to oversee a croquet match.

The music is charming, the ambiance is suitably spooky (a much under-appreciated aesthetic result), and at just over an hour, this is a show that doesnt outstay its welcome. Its a fine foot-in-the-door for this talented artist, and one has to applaud both ACT for providing Appino the chance to shine, and for this talented director to fitting her art to the form of commercial theater

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