Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Something happened to me today,” says Lizzie in Pretty Goblins. “Something happens to everyone every day,” says her twin sister Laura.
There it is, in a nutshell: the hard, maybe irreducible, human mystery at the crux of Beth Graham’s new drama. And the two breathtakingly fearless performances in Brian Dooley’s premiere production at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre bring you smack up against it. Why can some people recover from trauma fall-out and resist the lure of addiction? And why are some people sucked into a vortex of self-destruction?
Pretty Goblins doesn’t let you take refuge on either side of the old nature vs. nurture debate. It flings you past all that into the ether where tragedy kicks sociology’s ass, and disturbing thoughts of destiny roam. Like their namesakes in Christina Rossetti’s 19th century seduction/salvation fantasy poem Goblin Market, Lizzie and Laura are twins, in both inheritance and environment mirror images of each other .
“Tell me a story,” Laura (Nadien Chu) nags Lizzie (Miranda Allen) as they slide into their little girl selves. The story is always the same, The Tale of the Hoodly-Doodly: two twin fetuses occupying the same womb, holding hands, “two hearts beating together.”
The sisterly dynamic is set forth in the convincing chemistry of Dooley’s production. The sisters are allies in fortifying themselves against the cruelties of booze-fuelled maternal abuse; they have nicknames, shared code phrases, rituals. They giggle at the same things; the same dirty words make them shriek with laughter.
Allen’s Lizzie, who dreams of being an astronaut sailing the big wide universe, is the less cautious one, the quick-witted instigator. Chu’s Laura is more compliant, and more fearful. She has to be talked into daring, the follower who yells “wait for me!” It’s Laura’s perspective — her heartbreaking vision of the terrible fall of her twin into a dark world of addiction and her own futile attempts to halt it — that frames Pretty Goblin.
Under Dooley’s direction that fall is chronicled, meticulously, in a series of flashbacks at different ages, in which the black comedy of awkward social moments gets uglier, grimmer, and finally disappears altogether in rage and self-loathing. The way the celebratory turns inevitably strident will make you flinch and nail you to your seat. This is definitely not the kind of show that makes you want to rush to the bar afterwards.
“I belong to you and you belong to me….” Lizzie consoles her sister at a moment of sexual awakening when their paths seem to first diverge. That consolation turns into something appalling in Pretty Goblins, as the bonds of childhood become the the most fragile of life-lines, and the rope that strangles. Chu and Allen don’t venture, they dive, full-throttle heart-first into this dark material.
I did wonder, at the outset, whether the presence in the play of the Rossetti poem itself — the sisters recite snatches of it from the volume they shared as kids — wasn’t a little artificial and stage-y. It took some getting used to, in truth, but the actors made it work.
As horror-meister Edgar Allan Poe got, the nightmare that unnerves you to the marrow isn’t glimpsing the bizarre. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing the familiar turned strange — a monstrous version of yourself looking back at you crying “I wanna be human again.”
In Goblin Market, one sister is irresistibly drawn into tasting the lethal magic fruit of the goblin men. And sisterly steadfastness does, in the end, save the day: the “dwindling” sister is snatched back from the brink of destruction. It’s a different story here.
In Jason Kodie’s sound design, the soundscape of the city grows distant, and cedes to a harsh high-pitched flatline. Megan Koshka’s design makes of the stage a slatted platform over an eerie abyss of green light. Little Laura is right: The monsters are lurking underneath.
At eight, Lizzie constructs a “girl-made tin can solar system” to show her sister a magical play of stars on an overhung sheet. The galaxy is all there waiting. But you have to look up.
Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written by: Beth Graham
Directed by: Brian Dooley
Starring: Miranda Allen, Nadien Chu
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through April 29
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)