Friday, February 7, 2014

Theater Review: The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls -- Yale Rep

Emily Walton and Felicity Jones.Photo: © Joan Marcus 2014
Clashes Between Fantasy and Reality, Old Russia and New Abound in Odd Play at Yale Rep
By Lauren Yarger
Once upon a time we could go to the theater and enjoy a play that made sense, challenged our thinking, moved our hearts and made us feel enlightened when the curtain fell.

Today, a “cool” play requires weird settings, odd plot, loud music and outlandish costumes to catch our attention.

Such is the case of Meg Miroshnik’s The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls getting a run at Yale Rep, famous for not being afraid to stage an odd play or two. Old versus new isn’t out of place here, as the play itself pits Old Russia against New Russia and fantasy against reality.

Annie (a perky Emily Watson) was born in the Soviet Union but grew up in America after her mother, Olga, (Jessica Jelliffe), fled hardship and sought a better life here. Now, the former mathematician who has not been able to find fulfilling work, is not so sure she made the right decision and she sends her 20-year-old daughter back to the Motherland to study Russian and lose her American accent. She packs her off with an old fur coat and warnings to watch out for Baba Yaga (Felicity Jones), the “not-really-aunt” who will be her host.

“Watch out for witches,” he mother says. “Wicked witches is crazy bitches.”

And off the naïve girl goes into Moscow 2005, the Trice-Nine Tsardom in the Trice-Ten Country (the dark set is designed by Christopher Ash) to blaring rock music played by cast members stage right dressed in a combination that looks like it was borrowed from the closets of the GoGos. Miley Cyrus and Kinky Boots (Chad Raines provides the composition as well as Sound and Musical Direction and KJ Kim is the Costume Designer). Rachel Chavkin, who staged the very fun and quirky musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 in New York, directs.

What she finds is a surreal place, where bears and magic dwell, and where a number of familiar fairytale themes get cameos amidst sexual innuendo and explorations of topics like sex trafficking, the economy and mindlessly doing what you’re told. There also is a lot of language. And a lot of bras.

Annie’s naiveté evaporates, however, as she begins to understand the true nature of the bear plaguing her friend, Masha (Sofiya Akilova), what Baba Yaga really wants to get between her iron teeth and why her mother left Russia. (Celeste Arias completes the ensemble.)

There are a few laughs (and I do mean about three), but overall Miroshnik, who was a finalist for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for this play, tries to put so much into the script that it ends up feeling like a great big old ogre that needs to be slayed.

This is the kind of play that causes us to start to have an overwhelming desire to look at our watches. The part of me that believes in fairytales wants to see magic and a watch that says the time is 9:35 and that there are only five minutes to go, but my realistic side knows that if I look, I will discover that it’s really 8:15, meaning only a quarter of an hour has passed, even though it has seemed like several hours. When I finally couldn’t resist any more and looked, the fairytale fractured. 8:30. An hour and 10 to go.

In view of the recent reports of the horrible conditions reporters covering the Olympics in Russia have found in their hotels and bathrooms, I snorted when Masha described the luxurious surroundings her friend had landed by sleeping with a married guy: “You should see the toilets in this place: 24-karat gold.”

But I gave up completely when Annie had a battle to the death with a potato (Rick Sordelet is Fight Director).

Jones deserves note for her creepy, gnarled, voraciously-appetited Baba Yaga, who grows older every time she is asked a question. She skillfully does convey that phenomenon (with the aid of a sound effect) and I registered surprise at her more youthful appearance at the curtain call.

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls continues happily ever after at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven, until Feb. 22. Tickets $20-$98: (203) 432-1234;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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