Do you remember when Michael Jordan played baseball for the White Sox? I do and so does Wikipedia. It was surreal… watching a world-class athlete play the wrong sport. Luckily we all knew the story while it was happening. But what if we didn’t? What if Michael had started his career in baseball and never found basketball as his true calling? He probably would have withered away as a middle-of-the-pack outfielder who got traded from team to team, wore some cool sunglasses, and eventually retired to run a small town hardware store. That doesn’t sound so bad but it’s a far cry from being remembered as a generation’s greatest athlete. Some fans love watching baseball, some fans love watching Michael Jordan, we all love watching someone at the peak of their game. Most of us don’t really care if it’s baseball or basketball or basket weaving, we just want to see a master doing what they do best.
Watching Theatre Elision’s production of “Goblin Market” felt a lot like watching Michael Jordan play baseball. Which is to say the young and scrappy Theatre Elision is comparable to Michael Jordan. It is also to say this tremendous group of artists has not yet found the game that suits them best. Before I dive in further you need to know a bit about the piece: “Goblin Market” was originally a narrative poem written in 1859 by the very-British Christina Rossetti. It was made into a work of musical theater in 1985 by Americans Polly Pen & Peggy Harmon. The theatrical version received critical praise but seems to have been completely forgotten in the subsequent years.
Michael Jordan: The small but mighty troupe of Theatre Elision was tremendously talented. The two actors/singers and four live musicians were clearly professionals, capable of conquering any production set before them. Hearing them make un-amplified music in their chamber ensemble of: alto, soprano, grand piano, violin, cello, and percussion was gorgeous. These natural sounding instruments are timeless and innately exciting, many moments were pure perfection. But… in the Crane Theater with its less-than-ideal acoustics, this heavenly music was often obscured by the sound of trucks passing by or the ventilation system kicking in. Also, in some songs the acoustic instruments were augmented with digital MIDI tracks which I found distracting and made me feel like the musicians don’t realize the profound nature of their great, simple ensemble. Playing the two sister-protagonists, Christine Wade & Krin McMillen showed incredible ability. They took very florid language (with very British text from 158 years ago) and made it feel urgent. In scenes that allowed them to clearly tell a specific story (with simple language and a clear plot) they were captivating. But… 95% of this piece didn’t allow them to be direct. The ornate verbiage made the heavily descriptive plot hard to follow and didn’t let these actors do much of what they do so well. I was often left with the feeling they were doing something exciting but I didn’t exactly understand what.
Baseball: “Goblin Market” is a bold piece. With source material that was daring for its time, then turned into a work of “art musical theater” (if I may create a name for this genre) and then forgotten for many years, very few audience members would possibly have the background knowledge needed to understand this piece without theatrical assistance. Relying largely on verbal descriptions of a complicated and subtle plot, this piece demands visual support if an un-initiated audience member is going to understand the action of the story. In this production, paintings inspired by the poem were projected above the stage. These images helped clarify the tone of the story and general plot but didn’t provide enough specificity to really hold the audience’s hand. Also, the projection screen was partially obscured by the rigging for another set piece so the stage seemed to belittle the importance of this visual component. In my opinion, a production focused on physical movement or puppetry could more clearly bring this work to life in a way that feels approachable to the layman.
So why did they choose this piece? Great question! I asked the very same one during the post-show discussion. I received an eloquent answer that this piece was chosen after being discovered on a list of “10 great shows by women composers you’ve never heard of” (referencing Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon, not necessarily Rossetti). And there it is! The explanation, the mission statement of this young theater company: to present unknown work by female writers. Great! Yes please! But I (and presumably others) would love to see great curation paired with the specific strengths of this talented troupe. Also, productions presented in physical spaces that support the needs of each piece. When all these elements align, Theatre Elision will be something truly special. I would tell everyone I know to attend productions of ‘art musical theater’ by female writers in beautiful venues. Luckily, we have many more chances to see their progress this year. This production wasn’t quite a home run but it was skillful and sincere. Luckily we know their story and get to watch them find their strengths. Perhaps their next piece will be more of a slam dunk (pun very much intended).