THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS, onstage at Manbites Dog through May 9

Annie (Faye Goodwin) is fed by her

Annie (Faye Goodwin) is fed by her “not quite Auntie Yaroslava” AKA Baba Yaga, who eats young girls (Carly Prentis Jones) in Manbites Dog’s striking production of THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Floral matryoshka set, smallest doll nested.  Photo: BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons.

Floral matryoshka set, smallest doll nested.
Photo: BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons.

Some days, the bear eats you; some days you eat the bear.  Other times, that canny old witch Baba Yaga fattens you up before she roasts your bones for supper–The End. But in Meg Miroshnik’s contemporary Moscow, the women aren’t playing by the old rules any more, even though their lives are still as onionized as matryoshka dolls, each iteration of self constrained by a skin of old ways imposed by an ancient patriarchal society. “Action must be taken!” they cry to each other as they lurch from one perilous situation to the next doing the best they can to stay alive, protect their friends, and be happy. Between the classic beginning to a Russian fairy tale, “they lived, they were,” and “The End” (no happily ever after), these women take bold and surprising actions with stunning sang-froid, often using language that could blister paint. In the hands of director Jules Odendahl-James, the play is brazen, feminist, provocative, sad, bitingly humorous–yet another Manbites Dog production not to be missed.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) is welcomed to Russia by a customs officer (Laurel Ullman) in Manbites Dog's production of THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) is welcomed to Russia by a customs officer (Laurel Ullman) in THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

When I took Russian history in college, no women were mentioned, other than Catherine the Great and assorted czarinas. One knew of some cultural figures–Ahkmatova, Pavlova, Plisetskaya–and of course, Russian women in fiction; and that women in the USSR were being educated and trained for “male” jobs like astrophysics and utilizing heavy equipment. But even after the revolutions that created the communist state, women as political leaders were conspicuously absent. The Russian Bear was always male.

It would be difficult for the young women on stage in Miroshnik’s fascinating one-act, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, to comprehend how large the USSR loomed for people of my age group. The insane geo-politics of the Cold War torqued everyone. Kruschev! The Iron Curtain! Duck and cover! This way to the bomb shelter! The KGB! The Gulags! The Evil Empire! On and on. By the mid-1980s, even the most ardent believers in the pure possibilities of communism had been disabused to the idea that that purity could be found in the USSR.

Raisa Gorbachova, R, with Pamela Harriman, in Washington, DC, during USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan, that led to the great thawing of the Cold War.  December, 10, 1987. Photo by: Chris Wilkins, AFP, 51500037.

Raisa Gorbachova, R, with Pamela Harriman, in Washington, DC, during USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan, that led to the great thawing of the Cold War. December, 10, 1987. Photo by: Chris Wilkins, AFP, 51500037.

So, great was the skepticism and later the celebration when Mikhail Gorbachev began to reach out for a detente with the West. Glasnost! Perestroika! With him, shockingly, was his wife, Raisa Gorbachova. No one had ever seen the Communist leaders’ wives. Scholar, philosopher, fashionista, she blazed across the Western consciousness, a completely new image of the contemporary Russian woman. The Gorbachevs soon fell from grace, but still, the image of Raisa remained overlaid on the old images of tired workers, queuing mothers, scarved peasants.

Gorbachova’s fairytale took a dark path after her husband’s ouster and the collapse of the USSR, and ended with a fast-moving leukemia in 1999. But before then, she had, as The Guardian put it, “destroyed the image of Soviet women as potato-shaped battleaxes in headscarves,” which makes her the foremother of Meg Miroshnik’s women of the Pussy Riot era.

As we all know, communism in the former USSR was replaced by the sickest form of capitalism, all repressive systems remaining firmly in place. Very few women’s voices have been heard since that transition.

Miroshnik, in an artistic way, provides a keyhole view into the strange difficult lives of young women in the new chaos of a country where change has been great, though bedrock change has not yet occurred. But, her work suggests, today’s young women are swinging on the pendulum of history in four-inch heels, battle-axes at the ready, prepared to eviscerate the bad old bear.

Annie get your axe--there's more than one way to skin a bear. Faye Goodwin as American Annie. Rehearsal photo by Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie get your axe–there’s more than one way to skin a bear. Faye Goodwin as American Annie. Rehearsal photo by Jules Odendahl-James.

The actors of the Manbites Dog production are uniformly powerful, and Odendahl-James made casting decisions that allow amazing visuals–three are tall, and three range from tiny to short–within the visual richness of Sonya Drum’s set design. The costuming, also by Drum with help from Dierdre Shipman, is a knock-out, from Auntie/Baba Yaga’s crone clothes (and mask, by Will Deedler) to Masha’s minimal dress and maximal boots. There’s first-rate lighting by Jenni Mann Becker, and excellent, appropriate live music by Bart Matthews.

But even if all this design richness were removed, these actors would get the points across. Faye Goodwin as naive American Annie–a Russian-American Jew, sent back to Moscow by her mother to improve her Russian and for some darker purpose–grows up before our eyes. She’s staying with her “auntie,” the wicked witch Baba Yaga, who Carly Prentis Jones totally nails. Jessica Flemming as Masha, the across-the-hall neighbor who befriends Annie, proves remarkably moving in this stylized role. Tiny Mikaela Saccoccio buzzes around like a dangerous insect in her pivotal role as Katya, while tall Jeanine Frost commands four different characters, including the whore Natasha. She has the most chilling stories, and is the one the others turn to when things get really rough. Laurel Ullman transforms herself repeatedly for the four remaining supporting characters. What an ensemble!

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) receives advice on the rules of Russian fairytales from Nastya the whore (Jeanine Frost). Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) receives advice on the rules of Russian fairytales from Nastya the whore (Jeanine Frost). Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) prepares to battle potatoes (Jeanine Brinell Frost) bewitched by Baba Yaga. Note the Pussy Riot-style head covering . Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie (Faye Goodwin) prepares to battle potatoes (Jeanine Frost) bewitched by Baba Yaga. Note the Pussy Riot-style head covering . Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

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