The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls features forthright young women, a bear, weird old people, shocking small town secrets, sexual peccadilloes, strangely shaped bodily scars and amusing regional ethnic eccentricities.
So ... It’s a John Irving novel?
Nyet. It’s a unique multi-styled commentary on Russian traditions and current realities, at a theater which has virtually cornered the market on Eastern European social commentary.
In the past, the Yale Rep has presented numerous Chekhov plays—in a variety of translations as well as in Russian. The Rep has staged adaptations of Russian short stories (Black Snow) and novels (Petersburg). It’s done contemporary musings on the breakdown of the USSR (Tony Kushner’s Slavs!) The Yale School of Drama has hosted exchange programs with Russian theater troupes. The school has a legacy of professors with special understanding of Russian theater: the acting teacher Earl Gister, the translator Paul Schmidt, the director David Chambers. The Rep’s done all right by Poland (whose legendary political troupe Theatre of the Eighth Day returns to campus this month) and Czechoslovakia as well.
The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, which has begun a run at the Yale Rep, is a bit different. It was inspired by the personal experiences of playwright Meg Miroshnik, who attended college and worked as a freelance writer in Moscow a few years ago. In her program notes for this production, Miroshnik mentions that “when I arrived in Moscow, it seemed to be a city filled with women. This might have statistically been somewhat true (the average life expectancy for a Russian man at the time was 57, I soon learned). But visually? It felt like an absolute truth.”
Miroshnik attended the Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program, where her contribution to the 2011 Carlotta Festival of New Plays, Tall Girls, distinguished itself with its surehanded storytelling structure and with its nearly all-women ensemble cast. Fairytale Lives… has no men in it at all (unless you count the bear), and a much less conventional dramatic approach.
The play bases itself around things any American audience will know about Russia — folktales, potatoes, alcohol and cultural exchange program. It doesn’t reference the Olympic games or the Putin regime, but the loud shouty live drum/bass/sampling score (by Chad Raines, Drama School sound design alumnus and leader of the New Haven-based pop band Simple Pleasure) evokes current Russian punk rock poster children Pussy Riot.
The play pretty much unfolds in the order of its title: first fairy tales, then real lives, then Russian girls.
Here’s the set-up for the main character, Annie (“like the orphan”), who’s grown up in American and is discussing her return to Russia with her immigrant mother:
OLGA: Now, you learn grown-up Russian, business vocabulary. You not little dyevochka any more.
ANNIE: You’re the one who’s always calling me a dyevushka.
OLGA: Completely different thing. Dyevochka is little girl. Dyevushka is girl under age of seventy.
ANNIE: I took women’s studies. That’s like, offensive. Females over eighteen are women.
OLGA: Baby, in Russia, you girl until you senior citizen. Consolation for hard life zere.
ANNIE: If it’s so effing hard, why do I have to go?
OLGA: I come here for you — you sink zis effing easy?
ANNIE: We got religious asylum.
OLGA: This was gonna be country of happily ever after. Not country of all day on feet washing stranger
hair. Now, I see on TV, all zees Russian people (not Jewish) who stay has so much mahnies. Zey
get free apartments from Soviet government, zen capitalist real estate market goes crazy and
everybody gets so rich, zey cover all toilets in gold and use mahnies to vipe they asses.
ANNIE: What does any of this have to do with me?
OLGA: You dyevushka in skazka who return home to Rus to reap you rewards. I’m too old. You gotta
take you legacy, baby.
Annie’s journey takes her into the squalor of modern Russia, and the country’s own version of that universal stereotype, the style-conscious dance-club-hopping young woman. But while Annie’s dealing with her friends’ disturbing domestic circumstances and questionable values, she’s also living in a cottage with an old woman who shares a few too many traits with wicked witches of yore. She feeds Annie gingerbread while cackling about the kinds of things she puts in her baking oven.
The bluster, the bonding, the storybook stylings, the blinding lights behind the band, the big-city realism and the folkloric cartoonishness, can all get confusing and overwhelming. But you wouldn’t really want to pull any part of this multi-faceted play out from the rest of it. It needs all these scattered elements to make its points about the coming-of-age not just of “girls” but of whole cultures.
Besides, it’s too much fun watching Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls’ up-for-anything ensemble switch up styles and costumes at the drop of a headscarf. The cast is beautifully assembled blend of sizes, shapes, ages and volumes. Emily Walton is soft and sensitive as Annie, while her various Russian acquaintances are lean and shrill and thick-skinned. The aged witchy woman in the cottage, Baba Yaga—a deft blend of the fairytale sorceresses of centuries ago, the indomitable elders of contemporary Russia, and busybody mentors of every culture—is played with rotten-toothed vigor by Felicity Jones, completely unrecognizable from her lithe, cool-eyed roles in the Rep’s productions of Hamlet, Ibsen’s Master Builder, Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance, Wedekind’s Lulu. (It doesn’t fall far, however, from the comic energy Jones exhibited in two new works at the Rep: The Ladies of the Camelias in 2004 and American Night: The Ballad of Juan José just last year.) Current Yale School of Drama acting student Celeste Arias—a standout in a number of small roles in the most recent Yale Summer Cabaret season—seems completely at ease in this fast-paced environment, a thoroughly believable character throughout. Accomplished character actor Jessica Jelliffe handles an array of mature roles, including mother Olga. Sofiya Akilova gets handles much of the heavy drama and attendant violence in the piece. And it’s nice to see the imposing blonde Stephanie Hayes back on a Yale stage; Hayes graduated from the School of Drama in 2011 and was in the world premiere of the literary musical February House at Long Wharf Theatre a year later.
Director Rachel Chavkin brings just the right pace and spirit to this riotous enterprise, which veers without warning from bare-stage storytelling to prancing bears to dancing girls to a perilous encounter with a potato. Adding to the joy is the excitement of seeing a challenging play written for such a wide variety of female actors. Meg Miroshkin isn’t just raising cultural awareness—by writing such ambitious female-ensemble shows, she’s providing a genuine public service to the American theater.
The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre, corner of Chapel and York streets, through Feb. 22. (203) 432-1234, www.yalerep.org