Through Sunday, Jul. 22
Burning Coal Theatre, Raleigh

It’s worth pulling out that old Norton Anthology again to remember Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem, “Goblin Market,” a fantastical story of Victorian-era sisters tempted by literally forbidden fruits and the fate that befalls them when one succumbs. Scholars have noted the sexual and corporate metaphors Rossetti pursues as teenage siblings Laura and Lizzie are relentlessly marketed to and seduced by the enigmatic half-human, half-animal title characters, whose sumptuously described produce proves first addictive and then poisonous.

When composer Polly Pen realized that a conventional musical theater approach would strip the magic from this rich and darkly verdant talesorry, no eleven-o’clock-number hereshe and playwright Peggy Harmon wrote a delicate chamber operetta instead. In this double-cast Women’s Theatre Festival production, I heard Elizabeth Galbraith and Jemeesa Yarborough, one of the production’s two duos, expertly sing the twin soprano roles against an orchestral quartet under Katherine Anderson’s discerning musical direction. The resulting music was as beguiling as Rossetti’s text.

In her directorial mainstage debut at the festival she founded in 2016, artistic director Ashley Popio adds an intriguing layer of complexity. She bifurcates the sisters, her singers becoming adults looking back at their younger selves, as choreographer Jennifer Palmer and Carolina Ballet dancer Carmen Felder portray the characters’ unwise adolescent indulgence in a wordless, mimetic dance.

The design team exhibits compelling attention to detail. Popio’s costumes depict both Victorian innocence and a darker knowledge of the world, and her fearsome masks give the goblins eldritch power. Candace Hescock’s intricate props and Lisa Suzanne’s dappled lighting complement Miyuki Su’s two-story set of fabric, wood, and illuminated hanging fruit.

True, Harmon’s opening sequence lingers too long as it evokes a remembered world, and Palmer’s promising young choreography plateaus without fully exploring the physical extremities Rossetti describes. Still, Goblin Market‘s clear achievements make it the most difficult, ambitious, and successful production in the Women’s Theatre Festival’s three-year history. See it before it closes.