Tasty baked goods, glowing ovens, scary beasts, flying witches and dark forests. This is the stuff of classic children's fairy tales. Throw in 6-inch stiletto heels, push-up bras and glossy lips, and it's also the stuff of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, a toothsome play by Meg Miroshnik about three Russian tarts and a smart American cookie. The dark comedy, which premiered earlier this year at Yale Rep, is getting its regional debut at Undermain Theatre.
The Red Riding Hood of this adventure is Yankee student Annie (Katherine Bourne, speaking with Kardashian flatness, as befits her generation of young women). She leaves a worried mom (Joanna Schellenberg, who plays other roles, too, and all delightfully) at home in So-Cal to spend a few months in Russia, which her family left as Jewish émigrés when Annie was a child (the story is based on the playwright's own experiences). Annie's going back to study Russian language "for business" and see what capitalism has wrought upon post-Soviet culture. "Sleep with one eye open," her mother warns her. "Vicked vitches is crazy bitches."
The "vitch" to vorry about is Auntie Yaroslava (Gail Cronauer), a stooped crone who has offered Annie a room in her rundown pre-Putin era apartment. When the old lady points out the bed above the giant oven, Annie begins to suspect that Auntie is the sort of hostess who'd have Hansel and Gretel for dinner. And not as guests.
Mixing classics by the Brothers Grimm with Old Russian "forbidden folklore" about "Baba Yaga," the sorceress who flies around on a mortar, kidnapping, roasting and devouring young girls, and some modern-day morality tales of wealth-obsessed Russians, the play unfolds as smart, sassy comedy with a feminist twist. It's like Sex & the City in Moscow, with Mr. Big as a bear.
Disappointed that her Russian classes are a bore, Annie starts hanging out with three local hotties -- Masha (Mei Mei Pollitt), Katya (Alexandra Lawrence) and Nastya (Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso) -- who've risen to sable coat-wearing status as mistresses and playmates of rich Russian businessmen. (Costumes by Amanda Capshaw put the actresses in skintight slut-wear that flatters every curve.)
The gals give Annie a makeover and take her to clubs. Annie, wielding a huge axe, helps Masha rid herself of the obnoxious bear/boyfriend who won't leave her apartment. Then they team up, like Goldilocks, Red, Cinderella and Snow White, to take on the witch -- and to vanquish a bushel of killer potatoes (cute puppet spuds by prop designer Linda Noland).
Like familiar fairy tales, this one meanders into the woods and back again as it finds its happy ending. And it keeps pausing the action to let characters deliver old Russian legends in lengthy monologues. Good thing the actresses, managing convincing Russian accents, know how to grab the spotlight and hold our attention. Pollitt, with her Groucho Marx eyebrows, and Jasso, pursing her lips under layers of lacquer, are the best at this. Schellenberg, despite some hideously shiny wigs, slips easily in and out of four different characters and accents. Cronauer's Baba Yaga grimaces like a jack-o'-lantern with brown teeth, the better to eat you with, my dear.
Directed by Dylan Key, designed by John Arnone, the production flips from reality to fantasy with slight changes in scenery. Look closely at the bare-branched trees upstage. Those lanterns are glowing skulls. Of dead czars perhaps. Or unpleasant boyfriends.
The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls continues through December 6 at Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St. Tickets $15-$25, 214-747-5515.
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