The show: "The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls" at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven.
What makes it special?: A new play by 2011 Yale School of Drama playwriting grad Meg Miroshnik. The play is a finalist for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
First impressions: Miroshnik's new work, which received its premiere in Atlanta last year, is wildly imaginative, wickedly funny and, as one character says, "looks foreign, but familiar." Think of it as a mad mash of Lena Dunham's "Girls," "Into the Woods" and Russian folktales as performed by Pussy Riot.
This frisky culture clash with a touch of magic realism has witches and hookers and bears (oh my), characters that are naughty and nice, a couple of riddles and a twisted moral or two.
It receives a fierce and fabulous production here with a terrific cast that doubles as its own punk band accompaniment, all under the nervy direction of Rachel Chavkin — who must have a gift for deconstructing Russian literary source material and reinventing them. (Her musical "Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812" in New York is a theatrical wonder, too.)
What's it about?: Annie, a 20-year-old born in Russian and raised in the U.S., returns to her native Moscow to connect to her heritage — and to "reap the rewards" she lost when the Soviet system collapsed and capitalism came to town in the "new Russia." But her career journey turns personal when she learns that the native folktales are not just instructive but a little too real.
This Annie in Wonderland discovers that the old woman (in folklore, the "baba yaga") she is staying with is a witch with a taste for young girls, the nextdoor neighbor's boyfriend has turned in to a bear, magic potatoes are mighty mean, a prostitute has fairy godmother powers and some new galpals (think Slavic Kardashians) have some tall tales of their own.
Not your typical cast of characters: Hardly. Emily Walton makes an appealing and resourceful Annie as she inevitably strays from the path and tries to navigate these strange and ever-changing woods/worlds. In fact, so do all the young women in the play, which makes it a refreshing work, full of strong-willed and clever chicks.
"Chicks?" Now that's offensive: No, these 21st women own their girlhood and celebrate with bling, boys and self-determination. (Besides, we are told, in Russia, you're a "girl" until you're 70, then you're an old lady.) It's a joy watching Sofiya Akilova, Stephanie Hayes, Celeste Arias and Jessica Jeliffe in various roles, especially as vivid young women. Felicity Jones is simply terrific as the scene-stealing, bone-creaking, kid-craving crone.
Christopher Ash sets are a mad mix of the old and the new, lit with a sense of mystery (or blazing glare) by Bradley King. KJ Kim's costumes are also witty takes of the old world and the new — with a touch of the tacky. Chad Raines as composer and music director, keeps things rocking, but he also adds just the right sounds to give the show the right amount of creep and fun.
Who will like it?: Lovers of dark fairytales, mixed metaphors and babushkas.
Who won't?: Witches. Putin. Ore-Ida.
For the kids?: Hip teens, especially young women, will connect big time.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Forget the Sochi Olympics. Yale Rep gets the winter gold in Russian-set play with fresh new playwriting voice.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Say "once upon a time" (in the Russian version "Zhyli byli" — or "They lived, they were") and you've got me. There's something so compelling about fairytales that strike us deep in our child-like hearts — and perhaps our adult ids. And when they're given a modern twist (making gender, political or societal points), it's another kind of wonderful magic.
The basics: The show continues through Feb. 22 at the Rep, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. The running times is 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. Saturday matinees at 2. An additional 2 p.m. matinee on Wednesday, Feb. 12. Tickets are $57 to $88. Information is 203-432-1234 and www.yalerep.org.
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