Coverage of the Sochi Olympics has included occasional glimpses of everyday life in today’s Russia, and they haven’t been pretty: Recurring themes include oppression, corruption, discrimination, and fear. Meg Miroshnik’s 2011 play The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, which Theatre UCSB is presenting through Saturday, doesn’t contradict those impressions, but it exchanges the superficiality of broadcast journalism for poetic imagery. Like the fairytales it incorporates, it’s ambiguous but haunting, a surreal romp that leaves you more than a bit shaken.
As expertly directed by Tom Whitaker, the play is an exhilarating ride through some of the darkest corners of the Russian psyche — places where traditional fairytales remain remarkably resonant. In television terms, Miroshnik has combined elements of Once Upon a Time and Sex and the City — not because mixing the two genres would be cool, but rather because the mash-up is an honest reflection of what it feels like to be a young woman in Putin’s Russia.
The central figure in this dark fantasia is Annie (Sophie Hassett), who was born in the old Soviet Union but left for America with her family soon thereafter. Now 20, she has returned for a summer, to improve her language skills (she is taking a class in “Russian for Business”) and discover her roots. Her mother is wary of the latter motivation, instructing her daughter to “sleep with one eye open.”
Annie gradually realizes that there is, indeed, danger all around her. When her new gal pals start telling her about their lives, she realizes their stories sound quite a bit like old Russian fairytales (stories which, unlike the sanitized versions told to American kids, seldom have happy endings).
Increasingly unsure of where metaphor leaves off and reality begins, she starts fretting that a friend has been eaten by a bear; wondering whether a worldly prostitute is a sort of fairy godmother; and asking if the old woman she is staying with is, in fact, a witch who is fattening her up for the kill. In this world, survival is the only goal, and ensuring it requires smarts, a certain flexible morality, and the strategic use of one’s sex appeal.
The production is something of a coup for Theatre UCSB: The play is simultaneously receiving a high-profile professional production at Yale Rep. While that staging surely has a bigger budget, this one boasts a superb creative team. The all-woman cast, decked out in Ann Bruice’s skimpy costumes, is uniformly strong. As the traditional witch figure, Baba Yaga, Madelyn Robinson manages to make nurturing gestures decidedly creepy and unsettling. And Nayna Ramey’s set implies more than its shows, which is perfect for this material.