Dallas — Sometimes the only way to get to the bottom of something really big is to go beneath the surface. Undermain Theatre should know. They’ve been doing it that way, literally and figuratively, for so long that it’s become their slogan.
With their latest production, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, playwright Meg Miroshnik has chosen as her topic no less than half of humanity. It doesn’t get much bigger than that. Her way to the bottom in this case is through fantastical Russian folktales reimagined in a modern context. Directing the descent is Undermain Artistic Associate Dylan Key.
Billed as a dark comedy, it’s more the former than the latter. Whether it’s playwright Miroshnik’s mythic ambition or director Key’s reverent staging, you can feel the weight of the world as they work out the way of the woman.
Twenty-year-old Annie (Katherine Bourne) is being sent by her mother, Olga (Joanna Schellenberg), to stay with her adopted Auntie Yaroslava (Gail Cronauer) in Moscow. They escaped to the states based on a religious persecution visa so long ago that Annie’s Russian is rusty and accent is wrong (Read: American). It’s time for a tune-up.
Before she goes, her mother gives her a giant fur coat and an evil-eye amulet. You know, the sort of supernatural aid someone needs to go on a good archetypal “Hero’s Journey.” Joseph Campbell fans, assemble.
Myth has always been a method for us to explain ourselves to ourselves and Miroshnik isn’t secretive about employing all the old ways. In this case, she uses skazki (traditional Russian tales) to explore the devushki (any woman aged 17 to 70).
Be ready for a little light Russian instruction.
The staski are presented with thick accents and thicker attitudes by the remaining members of the company: Masha (Mei Mei Pollitt), Katya (Alexandra Lawrence) and Nastya (Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso). These soliloquies work as a sort of backhanded introduction as they turn autobiographical in their conclusion. A difficult dynamic results from this character-infused narration. The audience is pushed and pulled between active reverie and passive witness.
You see, the raison d’être of a storyteller is the audience’s entertainment. Not so with a short-skirted, sharp-tongued devushki in this former Soviet-styled storyland. All their bluster makes less room for our make-believe.
Gail Cronauer’s Auntie Yaroslava/Baba Yaga has an easier time of it as a witch’s compulsion to captivate resembles more closely a storyteller’s aim. She can spin her tale with wild eyes, grasping hands…and no high heels. Though Joanna Schellenberg has to pull quadruple duty as Annie’s mother, a passport officer, professor and a scorned wife, her roles are clearer than the murky myth-mixing of the three young ladies that Annie befriends. Are they just grrrls experiencing life on a liberated level that Annie never dreamed of or embodiments of the impossible double standards that women encounter, or both—or something else altogether?
Though the audience may not know where to place them, set designer John Arnone, fortunately, does. Answering the collage of cross-continent, inter-genre requirements, he utilizes two large rolling door units with apartment hallway on one side and graffiti on the other. The open space is otherwise backed by a fantastical skull-hung bare forest. Steve Woods lights the proceedings with a glow appropriate for fireside stories. Paul Semrad adds atmospheric sound that ranges from scary movie underscoring to sound beds that would feel at home on This American Life. Amanda Capshaw scores some laughs with Annie’s mother’s pitch-perfect tracksuit and a moment of matching little red hoodies. The big bad wolf better be ware. Or in this case, big bad bear. This is Russia, after all.
Arnone’s graffiti is a particularly apt choice for this play. The messy record of people’s free expression is similarly layered so that individual symbols are surrounded by edges of other distinct images that have been covered. At a certain density of imagery, it becomes it’s own atmospheric message signaling something we all can identify, though we can’t necessarily disentangle. The red hoodies, too, in their brief appearance provide a moment of familiarity and reassurance, like breadcrumbs on the trail.
That trail picks up pace in the second act with flavors of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. Playwright Miroshnik keeps everything a little unbalanced, for instance mixing Annie’s magical challenges (wrestling evil potatoes) with the mundane ones (getting an answering machine). Despite the modern flair, we’ve a pretty good idea where it’s all going.
Every grown-up knows that fairytales don’t necessarily end well and it comes as no surprise what happens to Baba Yaga. Overthrow isn’t a particularly new ingredient in the hero’s journey. However—spoiler alert—Miroshnik has the scorned wife, Valentina, played by Schellenberg, done away with as well. This double disposal seems to suggest that young women must overthrow any woman who went before. Where does that leave these devushki in 20 years’ time?
Something doesn’t add up.
For all the potency of this myth-mash, there remains a feeling that these images on the walls are but the shadows of some greater truths. The power of the show then becomes the renewed feeling of resolve to find those truths when you climb back up the stairs.
Who knew that the point of getting to the bottom was heading back up?
So, it’s less Plato’s Cave and more Moscow Metro.
Or, the Undermain Underground.