Rep show stages dark side of fairy tales

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Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Yale Repertory Theatre’s newest show will remind audiences that fairy tales can be about escaping death rather than finding a Prince Charming.

“The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls,” written by Meg Miroshnik DRA ’11, opens Thursday night at the Rep. The play follows an American college student named Annie who travels to her native Moscow during the summer in order to improve her knowledge of the Russian language. But amidst the city’s modern urban environment are witches and bears from old European folklore that have come to life. Annie must ultimately confront these dangerous characters in order to keep herself and her friends alive. Miroshnik described the play as an accelerated ‘coming of age’ story in which the obstacles Annie faces leave her no choice but to grow up quickly.

“Annie has to either become an adult or die in this play,” Miroshnik said. “It’s not like the four-year process of moving out of your parents’ house, going to college and learning how to do your own laundry.”

Emily Walton, who plays Annie, said she believes that the play centers on the notion of young women taking control of their own lives. Annie, she explained, is initially an entitled, feckless girl who turns into a heroine figure for her friends after she is forced to save them.

Rachel Chavkin, the director, said the play challenges a stereotype that is found both in traditional fairy tales and in everyday life — the belief that a woman needs a man to help her solve problems. In this show, she noted, the women band together instead of relying on men. Chavkin recalled one of Miroshnik’s stage directions, in which the latter asked one of the cast members to “behave like what men think women do when they are alone” during the actress’s opening monologue. The show has a humorous, playful way of challenging people’s assumptions about women’s behavior and desires, Chavkin said.

The play will be performed with musical accompaniment by a live punk band that includes many of the cast members. Chavkin said the Russian feminist protest group “Pussy Riot” inspired this idea. She added that she often works with live music in her shows and believes that concerts can be more exciting to watch than traditional plays. Chavkin said punk music’s angry approach to challenging authority reflects the main characters’ desire to leave behind the constraints of traditional fairytale storylines and carve out their own narratives.

“Either you can be the victim in these fairy tales or you can take them and write them for yourself,” Chavkin said.

Miroshnik said that she also aimed to highlight Russia’s rapid modernization. Recalling her visits to Moscow in 2005 and 2011, Miroshnik described the city as a fast-paced urban environment, where people have to cross streets using underground passages so as not to disrupt the flow of traffic. Many stores were open 24 hours a day — even flower shops. At the same time, Miroshnik noted, these modern establishments are oftentimes built into the basements of old Soviet apartment buildings, a fusion which creates “an interesting juxtaposition of capitalism and Soviet architecture.”

She added that the character Yaroslava, a manifestation of the legendary man-eating witch Baba Yaga, is partly a symbol of Moscow’s older generation, that could not adapt to the transition that Russia underwent after the fall of the Soviet Union. Miroshnik noted that by placing modern teenage girls in old folk tales such as “Masha and the Bear” and “Baba Yaga,” the play reflects the tension between Moscow’s past and present.

Chavkin, Walton and Miroshnik all emphasized the lack of a rigid boundary between the real and imaginary worlds of the play. Walton said Annie is initially very skeptical of the possibility that the fairy tale elements she encounters are real and remains somewhat doubtful throughout the show. Chavkin added that all fairy tale characters appear in the real world, including Misha the Bear, who is primarily a metaphor for an abusive boyfriend but nonetheless exists on stage as a real bear.

Christopher Ash, the show’s set designer, said the set serves to constantly remind the audience that the real world in which the storyline unfolds is filled with fantastical elements. He singled out a large portal-like archway that stretches across the stage, explaining that the crew has decorated it with pictures of symbols from fairy tales, such as Baba Yaga’s house. Directly underneath this portal, which invokes images of the supernatural, Ash added, is a large background panel that was painted to resemble an old apartment building, which further combines the real and imaginary aspects of the show.

Performances of “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” will run through Feb. 21.

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