“Zhili byli.” This phrase, the traditional opening of a Russian fairytale, opens “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” by Meg Miroshnik. And, like the often-gruesome myths that follow, it promises no happy ending, no enchantment: “They lived, they were.”
Yet the show, for all its harsh, reality-striking sagas — including an “apartment whore” and three murders — is truly nothing short of magical.
As the play opens, a woman in what appeared to be a Russian dominatrix outfit reminds audience members to turn off their cell phones. She holds a cigarette, whose smoke drifts above the crowd.
Clad in over-the-knee boots and the tightest of crop tops, Masha (Sofia Akilova) appears onstage recounting the “fairytale” of her childhood. She lived alone in a one-bedroom shack with her single mother before escaping to wander in the “forest,” where “everything good — meaning everything bad — happened.” She recounts losing her virginity in a rough outdoor escapade, then encountering a threatening bear who agrees to keep her in his home as a girlfriend.
This opening begins the persistent thread of traditional Russian fairytales catered to the lives of Moscow women in 2005, and they all smack with the same dark humor. The content is startling at best and upsetting at worst, and ultimately accompanied by a twisted charm.
Annie (Emily Walton) is a 20-year-old American who is returning to the former Soviet Union (which she and her family left when she was a child) to improve her Russian, and finds a country where her guise as a “mature adult” is put to the test. She stays with Auntie Yaroslava (Felicity Jones), a seemingly frail, old woman who simultaneously takes on the role of Baba Yaga, the traditional witch in Russian fairytales. Jones undoubtedly steals the show; each of the dozens of times that a question is asked and she audibly “ages a year,” she elicits laughter from the audience. Her semblance to a latter-day Baba Yaga is an intentional archetype, but Jones takes the archetype far off the page with masterful facial expressions and vocal undertones.
While coping with Yaroslava’s attempts to fatten her up (perhaps in order to later cook and consume her), Annie meets Masha and her friend, Katya (Celeste Arias, DRA ’16), a stunningly beautiful and intelligent, conniving woman who aims to both marry and become the daughter of a “tsar” — here manifested in her 50-year-old, designer handbag-purchasing CEO boyfriend. Later, she will meet their friend Nastya (Stéphanie Hayes), a jaded and tough prostitute who has already earned enough to purchase her own apartment. Each of these characters shares their dark fairytales with us, effectively portraying a complicated amalgam of humor, gravity, youth and harshness with apparent ease.
The stage band, comprised of cast members who chant and bang on drums along with multicolored flashing lights, is a bold and creative choice. If nothing else, it is a wonderful showcase of lighting designer Bradley King’s talent. The memory of the shadow of the tassels swinging around Masha’s knees, projected onto the back of the set as she first meets Annie, is a subtle and beautiful choice which long outlasts the final bows.
The set, a masterpiece designed by Christopher Ash, provides an ideal complement to the apt lighting choices. From the artful trees and streetlamps to the intricacies of Yaroslava’s illuminated living room, it is an undeniably beautiful space. The transitions are impressively undertaken, as the characters travel seamlessly from a living room to a hallway to a raging nightclub while each set maintains its unique intricacies.
As the young women begin to overcome their inner demons — dressed as bears and witches and princes — while navigating some impressive stilettos, the audience follows. We can’t help but root for them through every mistake, every funny, touching and often disturbing turn.