In the second act of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, our protagonist, Annie, realizes that her fairy godmother is a blue-haired prostitute. Studying abroad in her native country, the American-raised Annie doesn't believe in evil eyes, and she doesn't believe in witches. Which is a shame, because she might be staying with one.
Meg Miroshnik's play is not your mother's story. Undermain Theatre's basement space has transformed into the seedy underbelly of Russian folklore, a vivid world filled with colorful characters and stories. A lot of stories. Tales Miroshnik grew to love while living in Russia in 2005.
"Baba Yaga was the starting point for me," says Miroshnik. "I was predisposed to be fascinated with the Russian fairy tales. They bring back the excitement of being a kid and going to the theater or listening to a story. And the Russian fairy tales are fascinating. Like Baba Yaga, who feels like a witch but is much more nuanced."
In Fairytale Lives, there is no princess, but more important there's no prince. Miroshnik has crafted a girl power story in which our protagonist, Annie, must first reconcile with and then escape the fairytale world into which she travels. Potatoes come to life and young women date men who've turned into bears -- but you won't see a single man on stage. In some ways, it's a contemporary of the fairy tales emerging from Disney today. Fairytale Lives is a grown-up Frozen. But instead of singing the family-friendly "Let It Go," Annie's first line is "I'm not a fuckwit." And as the play enters a more imaginative realm, it's her naive skepticism that guides the audience.
"It was important for me to put a character that had an American perspective at the center of the play, because that was definitely a lens through which I was seeing the world," Miroshnik says. "Annie as the American character is pulled in the world before she even knows what happens. That was my attempt to kind of represent how overwhelming and exciting and fast paced Russia was to me."
For Miroshnik, her two years in Russia were a turning point. She was being paid to write, but had stopped writing plays. Married to a Russian (a Minnesotan herself), she suggested they spend a few years in his native country, so they picked up and moved to Moscow. There, she found inspiration and she began writing plays again. When they returned from Russia, she also applied for the Yale School of Drama.
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"The experience of going to Moscow was great. It was a huge kind of shift about what felt possible and what I might want to do," Miroshnik says. "And that was when I applied to grad school because I felt like I wanted to find a community."
After Yale, she began writing about the Russia she came to know: the brightly plumaged women, the stilettos in the snow, and the dark stories of childhood. And the result is the award-winning play, Fairytale Lives, which was first produced in 2012 at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre at the Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition. Since then, she's written several other plays, including The Tall Girls, a female-centric story about a women's basketball team in the American Dust Bowl.
It seems safe to say that she's on her way to a playwright's happily ever after. For now, she's just at the beginning of her story. As her characters in Fairytale Lives would say, "Zhili byli," meaning "they lived, they were." In America, we'd just say, "Once upon a time, there lived a writer..."
See The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, directed by Dylan Key, at Undermain Theatre through December 6. Tickets start at $10 and are available at undermain.org.