"The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls" -- Yale Rep
by David A. Rosenberg
To start with, “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” at Yale Rep does deal with fairytales, lives and Russian girls. (In Russia, we’re told, the pejorative “girls” describes all women under 70. Then you become a senior citizen.) As written by talented Yale Drama School grad, Meg Miroshnik, and directed by Rachel Chavkin, this is a shrewd though jumbled evening.
On one level, we get riffs on old vs. new, from when “KGB turns on sun only one hour each day” to blinding nightclub lights, from schamtta dresses, sensible shoes and babushkas to mini skirts, kinky boots and unencumbered hair. Gone are the Communist times when “everything worth something cost nothing,” replaced by ministers who become Capitalist CEOs.
Which boils down to a quest for freedom, wrapped up in an evening of female empowerment where women yearn to escape from old superstitions and constraints. When these gals cut open a bear’s stomach, disgorging their friend whom he devoured, that castrating act is both liberating and vengeful.
An ambitious endeavor, “Russian Girls” is given a rock concert production by director Chavkin. With dazzling work by scenic designer Christopher Ash and costumer KJ Kim, this 100-minute, intermissionless evening is as aggressive as its characters.
What plot there is begins with Annie (an excellent Emily Walton), who lives in America with her Russian-born mother, Olga. Mom sends Annie to Moscow, described in the program as “the Thrice-Nine Tsardom in the Thrice-Ten Country,” to become fluent in the language and lose her American accent. (That Olga and Annie are also Jewish barely registers.)
Annie’s to live with Baba Yaga (a scene-stealing Felicity Jones), an old lady whose bones creak or who breaks wind a lot: the sound effect is indeterminate. Like the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” Baba fattens up Annie, the better to eat her later, my dear. When Annie leaves to be with new-found female pals, she’s warned, like Little Red Ridinghood, to “stick to the path.” There are also references to Goldilocks, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and other tales in the Western tradition.
Not until later scenes with the bear do things focus. Now we’re in a Russian story world, one of both metaphor and reality where the ursine is a true Russian menace. Think of the bear as Putin and the girls as Pussy Riot and you have a good idea of what’s going on.
But you may have trouble reconciling Annie’s being attacked by killer potatoes. Playwright Miroshnik is pulled in so many directions that her “Russian Girls,” though incisive, is also cluttered and unwieldy.