Saturday, February 4, 2012

Theater: The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls (or ДeByшκИ)

Moscow seems like a fairytale to twenty year old Annie, an American in search of her roots. But when the lines between Russian fairytales and Annie’s reality start to blur - and then vanish – things get seriously dicey.  
The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls is unlike anything you have ever seen. On our stage, or any others. It's strange. But in the best possible way.
One of the first things you should know about this play (other than the use of fairy tales) is that the playwright, Meg Miroshnik is the winner of the 2010 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition (possibly the best fast track to a professional career a playwright can take) and was just announced as one of 10 finalists of the prestigious 2011-2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize -  an award that honors a new English-language play by a female playwright - the winner of which will be announced on February 28th. Basically, you know it's going to be good, even by professional critique standards.

Here's a promo video:

I first found out about this play through this article HERE and, as it caught my imagination so well, I thought I'd give you a couple of larger excerpts than usual in the hopes it would do the same for you (emphasis in bold is mine):

The best way to learn a language is through immersion. And you could make the argument that the best way to explore a nation’s artistic roots is to study its folk tales. Should the folk tales be read in their native language, all the better. 
So for seven years, aspiring playwright Meg Miroshnik went to Moscow to work as a writer and learn Russian. She spent afternoons hunkered down in the children’s section of a Moscow bookstore, trying to decipher rudimentary Russian storybooks. She read tales of the evil witch Baba Yaga, and yarns about the little girl Masha and the dangerous bear. 
Looking back, Miroshnik is not sure how much those narratives helped her learn to speak Russian. But the stories of treacherous witches and menacing bears stoked Miroshnik’s imagination and fueled her dark sense of humor. 
...On its face, the premise of the play is simple: A young woman who was born in Russia but raised in the United States moves back to connect with her roots. She takes a room in an apartment building, and the woman she boards with carries a striking resemblance to Baba Yaga. And that is where the play becomes an experience in magical realism. As the young woman meets other residents, their lives have much in common with characters in Russian fairy tales. 
But the stories Miroshnik weaves are far from sweet. One woman is the captive of an overbearing, cruel boyfriend (the bear from Masha?). Another is a prostitute whose nature suggests fairy godmother. There are magical potatoes that Miroshnik describes as “low-tech theater magic,” and there are a few moments that owe a debt to horror movies, she said. 
“The metaphors are side by side with the more fantastical elements of the play,” said Miroshnik, who is originally from Minneapolis. “It’s a very dark play, but it’s also funny. None of the characters are victims.” 
As much as this play is rooted in fantasy, it owes a great debt to the women of modern Russia, who have been swept aside and pushed forward by the upheaval there. 
...Miroshnik spent as much time reading children’s books in Moscow as she did people watching. She was particularly drawn to the plight of its women and the contrast of their circumstances. 
“You would see these female pensioners begging on the street because there was no room for them in the new Russia,” Miroshnik said. 
Stalking down the same street would be the new, moneyed women of Moscow, which became one of the lasting images of the city for Miroshnik. 
“They were the brightly feathered birds of that city, out wearing stilettos in six inches of snow,” Miroshnik said. 
This young playwright has envisioned an enchanted world where all these women pull from their past to create a new folk tale of modern Russia.

1st release cover
Czech cover
 You can read the whole article (recommended) HERE.

While I have no doubt it's completely original and very different, I can't help being reminded of one of my favorite books by Ekaterina Sedia, The Secret History of Moscow. This is one of those fairy tale books I think would make an amazing film, if handled correctly and by the right combination of people. From all I've seen and read, Ms. Miroshnik's Russian Girls seems to have that same potential, even with the similar subject matter.

In an interview with Encore Atlanta (HERE) Ms. Miroshnik was asked some questions I thought fairy tale readers would find interesting:

What was the inspiration behind The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls?It came from the opportunity I got to go to Moscow, study Russian and work as a freelance writer. I was struck by how quickly everything was changing there. The life expectancy for Russian men was 57 years, so there were many more women. I saw these iconic images — teenage girls standing in the snow and old women with headscarves at the market — and I was interested in colliding this world of women with both the present and past. I hit upon the idea of trapping them in the predicaments of old Russian folk tales. 
How does that relate to Annie, the show’s central character?
There was a whole generation of people who left the Soviet Union as children who came back to seek opportunities in Russia as the market was taking off. Annie’s a realistic, optimistic American who’s in this crazy situation — living with this woman who may be a girl-eating witch, living across the hall from a girl who claims her boyfriend is turning into a bear. She can be the audience’s skeptical way into this world.
You can read the whole interview HERE.

I recommend reading this article too. Living a fairytale: an American girl’s adventures in Moscow quotes a lot more from Ms. Miroshnik on her experience of living in Moscow, how it translated into writing with fairy tales and the resultant play.

In both the Encore Atlanta interview (linked above) and a video interview shown below Ms. Miroshnik talks passionately about the role of fairy tales, not just regarding her play but in life: 
"I think thematically, the question I'm interested in is: What role can fairy tales play in adult life?"

In researching for this post I found a very interesting and pertinent article from June last year, Putting Fairy Tales and Fashion in Play, which dovetails well with the ideas and characters (and use of fashion too) in this play. 

It talks about fashion model Natalia Vodianova's life - both in the difficulties and successes. While the direct fairy tale references in the article are below, it's her personal story in coming from a harsh upbringing and what she's done with it that parallels her life with many fairy tale heroines:
Life has been bittersweet... Yet Ms. Vodianova, with a steely character behind the sweet face and child-like body, still believes in Russian fairy tales and fables, with their complex dragons and firebirds. 

To mirror that magical reality, the model asked 40 designers to each create a dress for the White Fairy Tale Love Ball, a Russian-inspired fund-raiser that will take place near Paris during the July haute couture season at the Wideville chateau of Valentino and his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti. 

Forty one-of-a-kind dresses, all inspired by fairy tales, will be auctioned for the charity by Christie’s and a limited edition book will show Ms. Vodianova in the dresses, photographed by Paolo Roversi. 

“Being still a Russian little girl inside, I wanted to create something around my love of fairy tales,” said Ms. Vodianova, who called on her fashion choreographer friend Alex de Betak to design a winter’s tale set.

The article focuses a lot on her life, the difficulties and tragedies she's overcome and what she's doing to change that for children in her homeland. Interestingly, because of her ability to get influential people to help, she's now seen as a sort of modern Robin Hood with her efforts to help those in need, especially through her foundation Naked Heart

You can read the whole article HERE and see more of the dresses from a special photoshoot for the 2011 Fundraiser Ball HERE and HERE. 

(Gosh it was hard to choose which ones to post! Especially knowing they're each inspired by a Russian fairy tale. I wish I knew which ones.) 

In the mood to read some Russian fairy tales now? HERE is a good place to start.

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls (or ДeByшκИ) is playing now through February 26th at Alliance Theater at the Woodruff in Atlanta, GA. You can find ticket and showtime information HERE.

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