Once upon a time there was a brave young American playwright named Meg Miroshnik. She decided to try to find her way in the scary world of theater, ignoring the naysayers who ritually proclaim the death of the art form. The playwright traveled far away to Russia and drew on her impressions to write The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls. It won a prestigious playwrights’ award that led to the world premiere at Alliance Theatre in the city known as Atlanta.
Now there was also an adventure-loving band of thespians in the Emerald City, and they called themselves Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET). Meg Miroshnik’s play cast a spell on them, and they set about staging its West Coast premiere.
Well, actually, it’s happening right now. Fairytale Lives, which has just opened WET’s ninth season, offers a refreshing affirmation of the make-believe magic of theater. That may sound like a modest — or even redundant — aim for any work which is meant to hold the stage, but Miroshnik’s play blends the far-out fantasy of fairy tales and the callous realism of contemporary life (post-Soviet Russia style) into a darkly fascinating weave of absurdist déjà-vu.
Not exactly always childlike, the fairy tales in question include variants on the ultra-familiar (Cinderella and the wicked stepmother) and classic Russian folk figures like the witch Baba Yaga and the riddle-solving Clever Katya. Even an example from the obscene Russian Forbidden Tales collected by Aleksandr Afanasyev, the Slavic Hans Christian Andersen, gets worked in. Most of these acquire an especially sardonic flavor when they intersect with the predicaments of Miroshnik’s 21st century characters.
Annie, born in Moscow but raised in Los Angeles by a single mom, Olga, returns on a quest to her native city. There she finds lodging with an eccentric old acquaintance of Olga’s who is unnervingly intent on fattening her up. The 20-year-old Annie remains oblivious to the growing danger while she works on improving her American-accented Russian and bonds with a circle of local “girls” (devushki) — as Olga points out, in Russia “you’re a ‘girl’ until you get to be 70.”
Each reflects a different fairy tale of her own. There’s neighbor Masha, whose boyfriend has metamorphosed into a bear, and her close friend Katya, kept by a sugar daddy known as “the czar.” An ex-Soviet minister turned filthy-rich CEO, the latter is one of several male characters who are only referred to but never appear on stage. (Except for the bear/boyfriend, who is anyway played by the all-female cast.) And to help the denouement along, glamorous prostitute Nastya offers her quick thinking.
Miroshnik, originally from Minneapolis but based in Los Angeles, got her MFA from the Yale Drama School’s playwrighting program (where she studied with Paula Vogel) and developed a Seattle connection through an earlier collaboration with Andrew Russell, Intiman’s current artistic director who helmed this past summer’s repertory festival experiment. Her adaptation of the libretto to a little-known Shostakovich operetta from the Krushchev era, Moscow, Cheryomushki (a satirical romance set amid a public housing project), was well received when Chicago Opera Theater produced it last spring.
The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls had its Atlanta premiere at the Alliance Theatre, and apart from a workshop staging in Moscow, this is the play’s second production ever. It’s a smart choice for WET, a company that has a knack for reminding us that there’s a lot more to theater than formulaic, psychological realism. An especially inspired touch by director Ali el-Gasseir is to introduce brief shadow-puppet illustrations (designed by Megan Tuschhoff) of the fairy-tale vignettes used to connect the characters’ predicaments. Though not in the script, it works as a clever theatrical equivalent to “air quotes,” keeping the play’s balance between stylized fantasy and reality in an unpredictable flux.
Overall, el-Gasseir emphasizes how Miroshnik’s dramaturgy is all about those shifting boundaries, and the production does an admirable job of toggling back and forth between them. Amiya Brown’s set design extends out to the audience, filling the walls with Russian kitsch and hunters’ mementos. The stage fluidly morphs from a dingy Moscow apartment block to a disco filled with the beautiful people thanks to atmospheric lighting (Marnie Cumings). James Schreck’s excellent sound design completes the imaginative scene changes, with creepy echoes of dripping water for the apartment-prison where “Baba Yaga” hosts Annie. And Katie Hegarty’s costumes cleverly play with the trope of Cinderella’s rags-to-high fashion makeover.
WET has assembled a terrific ensemble cast of six for the show. As protagonist Annie, Samie Spring Detzer takes an approach that’s a lot more interesting than the predictable arc of the naïve young American who learns from the school of hard knocks. She’s got a feisty, independent attitude from the moment she sets out from LA (already a “grrrl”) but then finds herself alternately bewildered, curious, alarmed, and determined. There’s no simple moral Annie learns from these fairy tales.
The ensemble chemistry works well here, with a subtle mix of achetype, social commentary, and parody from the Russian girls Annie befriends (Libby Barnard, Shannon Campbell, and Leah Pfenning). Aimee Bruneau’s transition from Annie’s concerned mother Olga back in LA to the evil czar’s wife Valentina (she subsists on a calorie-restricted diet of apples) is by itself worth the price of admission. As is Macall Gordon’s all-too-friendly “Aunt Yaroslava” as she tries to keep her real identity as the crone Baba Yaga under cover.
For all its special effects and illusionistic power, film involves a completely different kind of “magic.” Miroshnik’s play celebrates what theater and its form of storytelling are uniquely about — and so does WET in this auspicious start to a new season.
If you go: Washington Ensemble Theatre’s production of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls by Meg Miroshnik runs through Oct. 22, Thursdays through Mondays at 7.30 p.m. at 608 19th Ave. East, Seattle, 206-325-5105. Tickets: $15-25.