The folk tales that abound in Meg Miroshnik’s new play, “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” are not the happily-ever after stories so common in American culture. Instead, as the darkly comic production now running at the Yale Repertory Theater makes clear, these are starkly ominous ones that have long been part of Russian culture, which the playwright inventively uses to anchor the dangerous world of post-Soviet Moscow in which the young adults of the title find themselves immersed.
This is a clever conceit that Miroshnik has developed that sometimes requires a stretch of the imagination to fully accommodate, but in this noteworthy production it works sufficiently to convey the dangers and opportunities of a rapidly-evolving capitalistic economy that allows these young women to enjoy trendy outfits, bourgeois dates and exciting new freedoms, while needing to maintain a caution and a resolve against the undersides of a culture that can be furiously corrupt and deadly.
Two time Obie winning director Rachel Chavkin and her all female cast of six manage to convey a sense of the new Russia early on, allowing Mroshnik’s depictions of classic Russian fables to segue into 21st century scenes of young women trying to maneuver their way through a world that offers excitement yet remains in many ways tied to some unyielding traditions of the nation’s past. Chavkin should know what she is doing as she marvelously and dynamically recreated the Russia of the early 19th century for the popular, audience-immersive production of the Tolstoy-inspired musical “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” now winding down its run in a tent in the middle of Manhattan’s theater district. She understands Miroshnik’s empathy for the young women she depicts as well as a delight in twisting and turning the so-called fairytales into warnings about Russian life in 2005, the year in which Mroshnik’s play is set.
The play developed from an episode in Miroshnik’s own life when she visited Moscow to study at the State University there and work as a freelance magazine writer. She was impressed by the vibrancy of the young women emerging into adulthood, while aware of the babushkas, the older head-scarfed women, who held menial jobs and begged for change. As she points out in her play, the promise and exhilaration of change was always tempered by the culture’s inability to shake off its past.
In the play, the American Annie is sent by her mother, the Russian émigré Olga, to spend a summer with her aging aunt Yaroslava, who once helped Olga, her former husband and their young child Annie to flee Soviet Russia, just before the fall of communism. Ostensibly sent to improve her Russian, Annie is justifiably wary of her old withered aunt, who Mroshnik depicts as one of the most frightening and memorable characters in Russian folkore, the hideous witch, Baba Yaga, she of the house on splindly chicken legs that chases terrified young girls through the gloomy forests.
Annie goes on to meet a variety of other young women in Moscow, other “dyevushka” a Russian term for young girls, which mires these women in sort of a perpetual adolescence. There’s Masha, a next door neighbor whose boorish, alcoholic boyfriend has turned into an even more threatening drunken bear, and Katya, who’s managed to become the mistress to a wealthy corporate titan, referred to sardonically as “the tsar,” the Other Katya, the tsar’s daughter who has more recently caught Katya’s eye and bed, and Nastya, a wise young prostitute who has seemingly mastered the in’s and out’s of the new Russian system. All this, while Annie is being carefully fattened up by her plotting aunt while boarding on the top of the aunt’s enormous wood stove.
The characters will occasionally veer into reciting Russian fairytales that are then mirrored by the situations encountered by other characters, such as the story of the Russian Cinderella, which follows Katya’s life with the tsar but rather than achieving a happy ending, results in Cinderella’s growing boredom and frustration, reflecting Katya’s own turn toward her lover’s daughter. How Masha is eventually freed from the tyranny of the Bear contains obvious echoes of the Brothers Grimm’s Red Riding Hood including a neat stage image involving Masha’s rescue.
The play is filled with examples of the young women enjoying themselves at discos, parties or roaming the streets of Moscow late at night, as they struggle with the last vestiges of their girlhood with the need for strength and ingenuity that will get them by in this swiftly evolving environment, reflected in their need to confront and overcome the fairytales of their youth.
Emily Walton centers the play as the visiting Annie, who grows from the protected American girl into a somewhat wiser, more cautious woman who ultimately understands the need to put the myths and fables of her parents behind her. Felicity Jones is absolutely delicious as the crumpled, trudging Baba Yaga, using the façade of the frail but hardworking aunt to hide her sinister motives as the sly witch. She is particularly amusing as her character suffers from the pangs of sudden aging every time she is asked a question, a vulnerability that arms Annie with the ability to overcome this nemesis.
Sofiya Akilova is sweetly endearing as the beleaguered but defiant Masha, while Celeste Arias demonstrates a vulnerable confidence as the more wordly Katya. Stephanie Hayes is quite fine as both the ready and eager Other Katya and as the wearily strong Nastya. Jessica Jellife handily handles a number of roles including Annie’s Russian accented mother, Olga, the only person who actually speaks in a heavily satiric Russian accent, as well as folklore spouting Professor and as Valentina, the Other Katya’s possessive, entitled and ultimately doomed mother.
The combination of Christopher Ash’s evocative set design, including a massive wall that opens like a Murphy bed to reveal Yaroslava’s apartment with its massive stone stove, and Bradley King’s lighting design help create the foreboding atmosphere that characterizes the dark atmosphere of the folk tales and the difficulties of contemporary Russian society. KJ Kim has provided a variety of outfits that are suitably trendy and youthful for the young women and appropriately frumpy for Yaroslava/Baba Yaga. The fur coat that stands in for the bear in a fable at the top of the show is another inventive accomplishment.
Chad Raines has written a hard rock inspired score that is played in part by members of the cast during downtimes in full audience view. Though Raines’ sound design finds the music occasionally blaring extremely loudly particularly during scene changes, the effect is oddly appropriate in representing the wild raucousness of Moscow’s new economy.
“The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls,” which plays through February 22, is more than just an exercise in integrating classic Russian folktales into a more contemporary story. There’s also something charming and involving about Miroshnik’s play as it demonstrates how an upcoming generation of women in Russia will need to somehow work together to redefine their roles in a new society in order to achieve a level of success, security and independence that has long been denied to them. These women aren’t the babushkas sweeping the snow off the Moscow streets nor the mannish communist bureaucrats of the Cold War. They’re a breath of fresh air in a Russia that at least as recently as 2005 didn’t quite know what to make of them.
To keep up with theatrical activities in Connecticut, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” at the top of this article. A copy of each new posting will automatically be sent to your inbox. To keep with theatrical activities in western Massachusetts and the Berkshires, consider subscribing to the Springfield Art Examiner.