“Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” at Yale Rep through February 22
By Tom Nissley
This super-production of a super play invites us to see the big changes in Russia, and life in Russia, by viewing the stories of several young girls, their mothers, their absent fathers, and the core legends of Russian folklore that surround and inspire their lives. It’s about post-Soviet Russia, and about how post-anything doesn’t get away from the culture of centuries that embraces it.
The story evolved when Meg Miroshnik, an American student, visited the “new” Russia in 2005. Trying to describe what she experienced turned into this play about the lives of the girls she met and her studies. One flashback has her professor describing Russian culture, and the story of the two Katyas and the Seven-year-old-daughter. When American Annie (Emily Walton) asks why so much culture in their business class, the professor says:
“There were good days, the Khrushchev days, when a class like this would not have existed. Because everyone understood that literature has value -- and it did not need to be marketed as a means to more money. That was a time when people read real books on the metro: Turgenev, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. And everything was free: Art, education, museums. Everything worth something cost nothing. “
I suspect that her sentiment is key to the meaning of the play: a legacy of rich cultural heritage afloat in the flotsam and jetsam of new influences and abrupt change, describing very accurately the dialogue in Russia today about the place of the old within the present.
But back to the stories that intertwine here. When Anya (Annie) is sent by her mother Olga (Jessica Jelliffe) to capture more of her Russian identity and improve her Russian language arts, she meets Masha (Sofia Akilova), Katya (Celeste Arias), the ‘other Katya’ (Stephanie Hayes), and her ‘auntie’ Yaroslava (played magnificently by Felicit Jones). Yaroslava lives in Building Three, Apartment 57, on the other side of the river (not the high rent district).
Yaroslava’s apartment is amazing -- like an old hut, with a huge fireplace, and a warm place to sleep on the mantle. She was Olga’s schoolmate, she says, but because she is also Baba Yaga, she ages a year every time a little girl asks a question, so she is also a deformed old hag. As the play progresses, the Seven-year-old daughter, Misha the Bear, Red Riding Hood, and destroying the wicked step-mother / witch all come to life, interspersed with bold contemporary original music...
Christopher Ash’ set design for this show is stupendous. The sort of thing that you’ll remember long after you have forgotten the rest of “Fairytale Lives.” On Stage right there’s a colony of musical instruments and singers/players, with sound equipment (Chad Raines) and lighting buttons (Bradley King) that seem to or actually do cue in lighting and scene changes. The large flat wall to the left shows an etched face of Baba Yaga. When it opens, in horizontal sections, Yaroslava’s Apartment 57 appears. Doorways and Sectional pieces rise from below stage for transitional scenes very much pinpointed or introduced by Mr. Raines’ music. Mr. King’s lighting design is brilliant.
Rachel Chavkin directs the play with a quick tempo that sustains the pace from start to finish. There is no intermission. The use of the players’ hangout on stage right helps to emphasize the ensemble quality of the ‘girls.’
This play is only a must if you are interested in history, world politics, fairytale lives in all cultures, or good drama. If you fall outside that sphere it could thrill you anyway. I advise you to try to see it. Because it’s a very entertaining, very good, production.
Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre