Thursday, February 9, 2012

'Fairytale Lives' could use less magic, more realism

Posted By on Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 3:43 PM

THE BETTER TO EAT YOU WITH: Sarah Elizabeth Wallis and Judy Leavell
The Alliance Theatre opened its current season with Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s ingenious riff on classic bedtime stories. You should definitely put the kids to bed before approaching the Alliance’s world premiere of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls. Meg Miroshnik, winner of this year’s Kendeda Graduate Playwriting competition, takes a mashup approach to both old-school instructional folktales and today’s young Russian women who use sex as a commodity.

For instance, the play opens with Masha (Diany Rodriguez), a profane hottie in a red hoodie, who talks about a trip into the woods to pick mushrooms and berries, which she describes as erotically as possible. Afterward, she finds a remote cottage where she makes herself at home, taking off her shirt to reveal a red lacy bra, before the arrival of its owner, a big, bad bear who wants to do more than just devour her. Miroshnik takes a magic realism approach to the play, which could use a little less magic and more realism.

Spunky and likable Sarah Elizabeth Wallis plays Anya, aka Annie, who grew up in America but returns to her birth city of Moscow so she can speak Russian without an English accent. She stays with a sinister Auntie (Judy Leavell) who may in fact be Baba Yaga, a storybook witch with a ravenous appetite. Annie befriends Masha, who shares an apartment with a bearish boyfriend, and Katya (supermodel-statured Alexandra Henrikson), the mistress of an oligarch nicknamed “the Czar.” Along with a prostitute named Nastya (Bree Dawn Shannon), the young women recite fairy tales to the audience, then find themselves in their present-day equivalents.

On the outskirts of Russian Girls we glimpse the go-go lifestyle of post-communist Moscow, where the entrepreneurs are indistinguishable from the mobsters. A motif of sexual exploitation runs through the play, both literally and symbolically: Auntie may be fattening up Annie to consume her, while the other women use their sex appeal, and are used for it, in their relationships with men. Costume designer Ivan Ingermann has a field day with the show’s short party dresses and lingerie.

As the play progresses, Miroshnik tends to spend more time fleshing out the fairy-tale twists and parallels than exploring the characters of its heroines. Katya, for instance, reveals an obsession with the Czar’s daughter, who’s also named Katya, in a dynamic that makes little sense even with its mythic precedents. The play often unfolds with a mix of affected comedy and self-conscious formalism that reminded me of How I Learned to Drive’s Paula Vogel. In fact, Miroshnik studied with the Pulitzer-winning playwright at the Yale School of Drama.

As Annie’s warm-up wearing mother, Kate Goehring speaks with a thick, highly amusing Russian accent. Otherwise, the rest of the characters speak in American-style English, even though they’re “really” addressing each other in Russian, which undermines the play’s ability to conjure the flavor of Moscow. (Granted, no one wants an ensemble speaking in the same Boris-and-Natasha accent, either.) Fortunately most of the actresses give sultry, confident performances.

A scene with Annie beating herself up with enchanted potatoes falls short of its slapstick intentions, but nevertheless, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls really picks up speed as it moves toward its climax. As Annie and her friends come together in a show of female solidarity, they use storybook rules to battle fantasy villains. Miroshnik’s play needs some work to keep the fable-style elements from upstaging the human roles and the real Moscow, but The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls has a real shot at living happily ever after.

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls. Through Feb. 26. Hertz Stage, Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St.

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