CRT Debuts ‘Inspired’ Production of Goblin Market with Puppets

Puppeteer Sarah Nolan with "Rat" (Gerry Goodstein Photo)

Puppeteer Sarah Nolan with ‘Rat.’ Working with puppets has been a new experience for some of the actors, who generally interact only with other actors in a production. (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)

It is not unusual to characterize theater as a collaborative process between the varied disciplines that contribute to a play or musical performance. However, there are times when the creative powers of the collaborators provide a new experience for all of those involved.

Such is the case with the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s premiere production of “Goblin Market,” a collaboration between the School of Fine Arts’ dramatic arts and puppetry programs. The show runs March 27 through April 6 in the Studio Theatre, 802 Bolton Road, Storrs.

The play was written by Penny Benson, an actor and MFA candidate in puppet arts, and is inspired by “Goblin Market,” an 1862 poem by Christina Rossetti about two sisters who are tempted by goblin merchants to leave the safety of their home and buy fruit in the marketplace. The play is the CRT directorial debut of Margarita Blush, assistant professor of directing and performance in the puppet arts program.

“One of my biggest challenges in writing the play was letting go of my desire to remain true to the poem while creating a community around the two sisters who are the poem’s only human characters,” Benson says. “What resulted is a play with contemporary themes which, while inspired by the poem, is a completely new work.”

Goblin Puppets ready for Dress Rehearsal (Penny Benson Photo)

Goblin puppets ready for the dress rehearsal. (Penny Benson/UConn Photo)

As a director, Blush would normally make decisions about all aspects of a production, but she focused her efforts on collaborating with Benson.

“I told Penny I see this as her work and I wanted to support bringing her vision to fruition,” says Blush. “I tried to collaborate with Penny every step of the way. This is her MFA project.”

The student actors and puppeteers who bring the script to life on stage say they also appreciated the experience of being able to bring new ideas and suggestions to rehearsals that were incorporated into the evolution of the production from the original poem to its new form.

“It’s not the first time I’ve worked with a new script, but it’s the first time I’ve had such a part with a new script,” says Alyson Danielczuk ’14 (SFA), a senior who is Laurie in the show. “Getting the changes, and seeing how the changes were inspired by us or inspired by conversation we were in the room for has been incredible. I feel like I have, in my own small way, had a hand in making this show.”

Adds Colleen Labella ’14 (SFA), who is Jane in the production: “It’s been really awesome to be a part of the process. It’s probably the most collaborative thing I’ve done here.”

Benson’s script creates a fantasy world much different than the Victorian setting of the original poem, but emphasizes how the world is connected through people’s relationships with each other, their families, communities, and nations.

Harrison Howard Haney ’14 (SFA), an actor and puppeteer in the show, says there it is different working with a new script than with an established play that is familiar to an audience.

“One of the beautiful things about a new work is that the answers are not always on the surface,” he says. “When we go in to see ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ we know what that’s going to be about. With ‘Goblin Market,’ most of the time you might say: I wonder what that’s about? That’s such a great quality for a play to have, that it brings you in through the door. What this production is doing is challenging the audience to leave pondering some sort of question.”

"Weasel" Goblin (Penny Benson Photo)

‘Weasel’ goblin. (Penny Benson/UConn Photo)

Working with puppets has also been a new experience for some of the actors, who generally interact only with other actors in a production. Most audiences are not used to seeing puppeteers operating the puppets on stage, a practice not unusual in Japan and Europe but only recently seen on Broadway in such shows as “Avenue Q,” which has featured many UConn alumni as puppeteers. Danielczuk says it took a bit of time during rehearsals to adjust.

“It’s been interesting for me the first few times with the goblins, really focusing on the puppets rather than on the puppeteer, because you have the sound coming out of the person and you have to act like its coming out of the puppet,” she says. “That has been my biggest struggle with it. The puppets are beautiful, so they’re easy to engage with; they have their own personalities; just from looking at their faces you can see the soul inside of them, and our puppeteers have been great in bringing them to life.”

Blush notes that moving the location of “Goblin Market” from its original Victorian era to a fantasy world creates challenges for everyone involved in the production. From the start of the production the stage designers and dramaturges – who research the production to assist the actors and directors to better understand the background and nuances of a play – needed to ask what the new world of the fantasy looked like.

“This is what makes puppetry so theatrical. If we’re going to create an illusion that is just illusion, we can do it in a film,” Blush says. “If you believe in the life of the puppet, that’s the power of theater. It transcends us to another level that film and television cannot provide, where you suspend your disbelief and you engage your imagination and you are on this ride, where you have to be.”

The CRT production of “Goblin Market” will run from Thursday, March 27 to Sunday, April 6. Weeknight evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Weekend evening performances start at 8 p.m., with matinee performances at 2 p.m. For more information, call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu.

Note: “Goblin Market” is for audiences 12 years and older.