The great thing about Meg Miroshnik‘s play, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls (at Washington Ensemble Theatre through October 22; tickets), is the way it veers unapologetically into fairytale, just at the moment some crushingly grim reality would otherwise have to be faced. As Miroshnik portrays it, this isn’t regression or denial, but a way of staying focused on what needs to be done. It’s fairytale as survival pod: When things get out of hand, you strap yourself in and follow directions.
Miroshnik pulls these border-crossings off winningly for about two-thirds of the play (the correlations are aptly updated, with fatalistic Russian asides), but under the pressure to wrap things up her fairytales give way to cartoonish axe-wielding. WET’s intriguing production–featuring Amiya Brown’s seemingly infinitely reconfigurable set, with taxidermy that embraces the audience, and Megan Tuschhoff’s shadow puppets, recalling a less-baroque Prince Achmed–is riveting though, as are the (unpictured here) performances of Aimée Bruneau and Macall Gordon.
Set in 2005 Russia, Fairytale Lives follows innocent-abroad Annie (Samie Spring Detzer) on her trip back to the newly old country. She’s a twenty-year-old student, there to improve her Russian accent and learn business vocabulary. After settling in with an old “friend” of the family, she meets Masha (Libby Barnard) from across the dimly lit hall (Marnie Cumings, light design); Masha’s friend Katya (Shannon Olivia Campbell), mistress of a powerful, married bureaucrat; and Nastya (Leah Pfenning, who also plays the bureaucrat’s daughter), an “apartment prostitute” that Masha and Katya see less of these days.
Annie’s from California, and Detzer perfectly captures her obliviousness to social cues, while blithely telling new acquaintances that her Russian is rust. (Happily, everyone in the cast has benefitted from Hannah Victoria Franklin’s dialect coaching.) With her new clique established, you might think this was a girls vs. guys story–there’s that government czar, and Masha’s controlling “bear” is holed up with a vodka bottle–but it’s not simply that. The conflict is also intergenerational: Bright and capable Katya, Nastya, and Masha turn their sex appeal up to eleven (stilettos and barely-there hemlines) on nights out as they try to grab what they can, while they can.
“I saw these iconic images–teenage girls standing in the snow and old women with headscarves at the market–and I was interested in colliding this world of women with both the present and past,” Miroshnik said in an interview. Here, Seattle audiences get a double-shot of veteran stagecraft, in the form of Aimée Bruneau (who plays Annie’s track-suited mom Olga and an apple-dieting bitch-mother called Valentina) and Macall Gordon (“auntie” Yaroslava, who took over Annie’s family’s apartment back in the day and her alter-ego Baba Yaga, who naturally wants to fatten Annie up for a feast).
If Katie Hegarty’s costumes for Campbell’s Katya and Pfenning’s Nastya leave an indelibly long-legged mark, Bruneau (calculating her apple calories) and Gordon (wincing at every girlish inquiry) drive home a different perspective, which is that at some point, when you’ve gotten what you want, your task then becomes to figure out how to keep it. Director Ali El-Gasseir, who stages the schemings of hot young things with such élan, also keeps the pot boiling during their face-offs with the old guard.
I can’t finish without mentioning the skillful sound design of James Schreck, who has woven music and incidental effects into what feels like the physical texture of the production. The Moscow street sounds like the street, the nightclub, a nightclub–you never stop to notice that it’s being piped in for you.
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