An American girl finds Russian folklore still has power in modern Moscow.
Starting a story with “Once upon a time” may not be particularly original, but what comes after in Trap Door Theatre’s The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls certainly is. Director Nicole Wiesner takes Meg Miroshnik’s script and shoves its familiar, fairy tale–inspired pieces into the flames of a witch’s oven, turning them dark, searing and satisfying.
An eerie atmosphere swirls throughout the production—from the bustier-clad Russian chorus greeting audience members with discordant singing before the show to the dripping canopy of greenery and cobwebs overhead—and acts as a sort of seventh performer in an already-stellar all-female cast. Russian Girls follows American Annie (Emily Nichelson) back to her native Russia, where her visit wakes literal and figurative monsters of classic folklore for her and a trio of Russian storytellers (Simina Contras, Halie Ecker and Meghan Lewis).
Playing multiple roles, Ann Sonneville and a commanding Marzena Bukowska round out the fierce troupe. Bukowska, morphing between a cackling caretaker and the pestle-wielding Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore, is especially spellbinding, but each actress takes full advantage of her turns stirring the crowd in the intimate space.
For a show with so unsettling a tone, the production is surprisingly funny and physical, infusing the action with a lightness that makes the dark stuff even more affecting. Those jarring extremes seep into Danny Rockett's ominous but playful sound design as well.
There’s a lot to sort through here, and as storylines crash into one another, what’s actually going on in the forest can get muddy—but never to a point where it detracts much from the experience. Instead, the blurred-together references to children wandering into the woods, a poisoned apple, domestic violence, prostitution and big, bad bears serve to throw the viewer pleasantly off-balance as the characters stray from the breadcrumb trail to happily ever after.
Trap Door Theatre. By Meg Miroshnik. Directed by Nicole Weisner. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 35mins; no intermission.