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A CurtainUp Review
The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls
This witty approach to familiar fantasies is, however, often overpowered by a too loud sound design and the use of glaring spotlights turned on the audience when an on-stage punk band gets ready to hit a down beat. Why? It's beyond me, other than to jolt the audience's sensitivities already under siege trying to decipher the stimulating but complex blend of real and fanciful.
Annie (an appealing Emily Walton) is a young American, born in Russia, who returns to her homeland at the insistence of her mother, Olga (Jessica Jelliffe). The purpose of the trip is assumedly to polish her Russian, but also to take advantage of "what should be hers" as a result of the overthrow of the Soviet government and the emergence of western capitalism. Designer handbags and fur coats are symbols of a newly achieved Slavic status class.
The theme of conflicting old and new Russia is hinted at (hammered by) the presence of a Pussy Riot style band which is made up of cast members who double as musicians and characters. When Annie moves into the house of her Aunt Yaroslava (the always rewarding Felicity Jones) ominous, dark notes enter the story – happily ever after is never possible until some really horrible things occur.
Yaroslava is not just Annie's aunt, she is also (in disguise) the feared Baba Yaga, a traditional witch in Russian fairy tales. BabaYaga has a taste for young girls — after she has baked them in her huge oven. Things get even weirder when Annie discovers her neighbor's boyfriend is actually a bear, one that is not above challenging Baba Yaga for the tasty Annie.
There are some clever visual tricks; for example, a bag of potatoes seems to have a life of its own. Annie knows their eyes follow her. Her mother had warned her to "sleep with one eye open" but didn't tell her about potato eyes watching her.
In addition to the admirable Jones, Walton and Jelliffe the castincludes Sofiya Akilova, Celeste Arias and Stephanie Hayes. For their vivacious performances, all six actresses should be rewarded with pricey handbags and luxurious fur coats of their own. And no taking them back when spells are lifted!
Like all fairy tales, this one comes complete with danger, miracles and redemption. Which girl gets wwealth or comeuppance is really not the issue but how well the magic of the playwright makes these two worlds seamlessly one.
Christopher Ash's inventive scenic design straddles both the grubby underbelly of a newly greedy Moscow and the gnarled and twisted forest of imagination – or as legend has it " the land of the living dead." Kj Kim's costumes are colorful, nicely tacky, scary and fun- especially those sexy red boots and the real fur coat of the bear who lives next door. The lighting design of Bradley King easily summons up fearful childhood memories – the kind one's Mom had to alleviate by leaving the night light on, Rachel Chavkin, the director, who had a recent success with other Russian concoction – the off-Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, displays a sure hand for satire and broad strokes. Except for allowing those blinding flashes of light and some ear splitting musical notes, everything else about her work is exemplary. After all, even critics can't have all their wishes – not even in fairy tales. Political satire, even when enhanced by a world of fantasy, can be a fleeting pleasure. How well this diversion holds up in later productions may depend upon how the world turns.