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The Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls

a Atlanta Premiere
by Meg Miroshnik

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Hertz Stage [WEBSITE]
ID# 4227

SHOWING : February 03, 2012 - February 26, 2012



The eighth winner of our nationally recognized Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition is set amongst the swirling domes of the church in Red Square. 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.

Besides winning the Kendeda Competition, Meg Miroshnik and her play are also finalists for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a prestigious international competition recognizing women that have written outstanding English-language works of theatre.

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ćčëč áűëč (Cyrillic Characters for "Zhili Byli")
by Dedalus
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Zhili Byli (“They lived, they were”).

Once Upon a Time.

In Russian or in English, those words launch the reader (or the viewer) into the realm of the fantastic, where innocents struggle with predators, where real life rubs elbows with magic. Where fantasy is grounded by Grimm tragedy and where the mundane takes wing with imagination.

We are blessed to be living in a resurgence of wistful fairytale entertainment. “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” are two television series that mix the magical with the contemporary, and no less than two big screen looks at the “Snow White” story are scheduled for Spring release. The Alliance started their season with the almost-a-classic “Into the Woods,” and, in a bit of synchronous timing, they are now staging the 2012 Kandeda Playwrighting winner, Meg Miroshnik’s “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, or Äĺâî÷ĺę (girls),” a marvelously entertaining look at a few Russian Fairy Tales told in the context of a modern feminist coming-of-age story.

Anya (“call me ‘Annie’ because I feel like an orphan”) was born in Moscow, but raised in Los Angeles. Now that she is twenty, she journeys back home to discover her roots (and to lose the American accent her Russian carries “like rust.”). Before she leaves, her mother reveals a Russia-shaped scar on her chest, and warns her to never “stray from the path. In Moscow, she stays with an “Aunt” who bears more than a passing resemblance to the witch Baba Yaga, and who tries her best to “fatten up” Anya. The woman across the way, Masha, lives with a man who seems to have become a bear. And she meets two women, Katya and “the other Katya” whose stories come complete with riddles, Tsars, and fatal sibling conflicts. Toss into the borscht a prostitute and a Grimm societal underbelly, and you’re left with a totally original play, one that tells fairy stories as if they were modern urban tragedies, and looks at urban life as if it were in a land far far away.

These characters (and critters) are brought to glorious life by six tremendously talented (and, not that it matters, attractive) women. Sarah Elizabeth Wallis (Synchronicity’s “Best Christmas Pageant Ever”) brings an innocent exuberance to Anya that charms completely. We see the dangers along her path, and worry that she may be too young to discover them while she can still fight them. Bree Dawn Shannon brings us two totally contrasting characters, the prostitute “Nastya” (whose “prohibited” fairy tale is a highlight of the show) and the sorta kinda nice-to-a-fault “Other Katya.” Alexandra Henrikson is an imposing and strong Katya, Diany Rodriguez an earthy Masha, Judy Leavell a slyly sympathetic Baba Yaga (Auntie Yaroslava), and Kate Goehring a plethora of characters both real and (perhaps) not.

This is also one of the best technical designs in town. Collette Pollard has created a thrilling set with scrimmed stone walls that turn into a forest at the flick of a switch, and that includes an enormous bear-sized oven (which you KNOW will be used for some nefarious purpose before all is happily-ever-aftered), and it is lit by Howell Binkley in a fast-paced multi-cued mix that must be pure hell on the logistics of getting actresses from one place to another (or from one character to another). Costumes by Ivan Ingermann combine peasant practicality with urban sleaze with a remarkable ease of transition, and the sound by Clay Benning (with original music by Joshua Horvath) is all Mother Russia melancholy, night club chic, and what’s-that-noise mystery.

I liked how this was all about the women, the “girls” of the title, with the less-than-admirable males relegated to off-stage impotence. I liked how each character tells us a tale to tell that informs (if not totally echoes) her own back story. And I liked how multiple threats come to fruition in perfect sequence, building to a suspenseful climax that mixes the right amount of danger with a sprinkling of both magic and realism. If I have one complaint, it’s that not all the stories carried the same clarity – I had to listen carefully to discern what happens when Annie, Masha, and Katya go out clubbing, and the place of the doomed Valentina isn’t as clear as I would have liked.

Still and all, what we’re left with is a journey into Russian folk tales, from the opening Zhili Byli to the “happily ever after” that’s not as final as it seems. We’re left with a marvelous evening spent in the company of all these women (and critters) who chafe at being called “girls” at the same time the wear the name like a badge of honor.

And we’re left with the classic elements of an innocent girl, a witch, and a hungry bear. Believe me when I tell you there’s more than one story there.

Zhili Byli!

-- Brad Rudy (



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