Chad Raines

And One to Grow On

Everyone knows that fairy tales are often cautionary stories, told to amuse children and to warn them, in make-believe fashion, about the pitfalls of life. Granted, it’s life with an uncanny edge to it and I suspect that more than one child has grown-up rather disappointed that real life isn’t like that. Meg Miroshnik’s The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls takes us to a world that is like that—but it’s not just any world, it’s specifically 2005 in the former Soviet Socialists Republic of Russia, and that means that while her heroine Annie is trying to go about her business of re-russifying her Russian (it’s “rust” now, she says), she is met both with the folkloric elements of fairy tale—such as the well-known “wicked witch” figure called Baba Yaga who eats little children, cooking them in her big warm oven (of course), and who also suffers the curse of aging a year every time she is asked a question—and the realities of the “fairy tale” of a capitalist Russia. The combination of the two means that this is a weird world, where bears and tsars, to say nothing of whores and high fashion, are just part of the landscape, where the great desiderata is an apartment of one’s own “in the center” and where Prince Charming, for any Cinderella up from the ashes, is apt to be one of Russia’s newly constituted millionaires.

One of the strengths of this magical and compelling show is that we don’t quite know where it’s going. “Happily ever after” is generally the ending of fairy tales, but there’s a lot to get through to get there. And, in the end, you might disappear like you were never here.

What the play is best at—the mix of the contemporary and the fantastic—the staging at the Rep, in Christopher Ash’s bold and imaginative set design and Chad Raines’ varied sound design, brings to the fore, with doors that rise up from the floor, with a basket of potatoes that gets ambulatory, with a bone-crunching sound every time Baba Yaga (Felicity Jones) cringes at a question, with the ability to suggest a Russian disco, a shack in the woods, an entrance way between two apartments with shape-shifting alacrity, and, especially, with the storied and creepy clutter of Baba Yaga’s lair.

That’s where Annie (Emily Walton) stays because the lair is “really” the apartment of Annie’s Aunt Yaroslava, and Annie was sent there by her mother Olga (Jessica Jelliffe, in heavily-accented Russian-American speak) who ran off from Russia in the 1990s to escape antisemitism. Now, Olga sends her daughter back and, by the rules of fairy tale, that must mean there’s a score to settle. Kindly old Aunt Yaroslava, who hates questions, just loves fattening up her wide-eyed American niece . . .

If you’ve ever read fairy tales to children, then you probably know how much fun it is to play the wicked witch or godmother, and here Felicity Jones (always a pleasure) has the choice role of Baba Yaga/Yaroslava. She’s crafty, creepy, full of the unctiousness of the guardian who is looking after her charge with, all the while, that sense of her own agenda that is so obvious and yet so unreal. Jones is actually sympathetic if only because Annie is so trustingly clueless, in the best tradition of Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks. Either that dyevushka better get some sense (or grow some balls) or she deserves her place in auntie’s entrails.

As Annie, Walton does the “gosh and gee willikers” Shirley Temple bit fine but she never quite modulates into a knowing grasp of things, despite a make-over scene that shows off the resources of KJ Kim’s costumes. The what’s-what is left to her posse of grrrls; in director Rachel Chavkin’s hands, they’re like a mash-up of the Spice Girls and Pussy Riot, the punk styling of the latter provided (were there were more!) via composer Chad Raines, with the girls as a band off to the side, Greek chorus style.

Best at making Miroshnik’s tight lines zing is Stéphanie Hayes; she scores as Nastya, the voice of knowing negativity and a whore who, while not having exactly a heart-of-gold, is pressed into service by Annie as a “fairy godmother.” A high point is her telling of one of the Zavyetniye Skazki, or “forbidden folktales” in which a domestic (and patriarchal) “just-so” story becomes, in her hands, a story worthy of the feminist revisionism we should expect. And it’s great to see her pound those drums.

As Katya, Celeste Arias handles the Spice Girls part of the equation. She’s your basic gold-digger, c. 2005, with a cigarette-inflected voice and impossibly long bare legs atop impossibly high shoes, looking like she’s waiting to teeter into a bed owned by whoever has the most bread. It’s her fixation on “the Other Katya,” her sugar daddy’s daughter (Hayes again, with an expression like sweet dessert), that might be her undoing.

Then there’s Masha (Sofiya Akilova) as somewhere in between: she’s basically your put-upon girl-with-a-guy, and she still just wants to have fun, and maybe go to school. She tends to get the unenviable exposition role, but her tale of “Masha and the Bear” opens the show with a convincing sense of how a fairy tale can modulate into just another hard luck story you’re going to hear. And she totally rocks those red thigh-highs.

So, a self-centered Aunt who only appears to be looking out for you; or a friend who is married to a bear of a guy who abuses her and might even kill her; or another friend who is actually having an affair with the father of a girl she has befriended; or a parent who gives her child a task that will either lead to a sense of self-reliance, or make her a victim forever. These are situations that could happen anywhere, and their upshot is that there’s a time, everywhere, when “girls” have to become “adults.”

Miroshnik keeps the juggling between reality and fairy tale nimble and surprising, and Chavkin’s production lets both realms exist in the audience’s imagination, though at times it needs to be a bit more breathless. In the quick change world of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, we find that the old stories do indeed work in our contemporary world, and that girls will triumph—over their female elders and males (no real member of either group was actually harmed in the telling of this play)—if only they stick together and face facts, no matter how bizarre or hard to believe, and are willing to study things like cybernetics and mathematics.

As Annie reflects, Dorothy-like, late in the play: “Sometimes adults have to do things that are really effing hard!”

 

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls By Meg Miroshnik Directed by Rachel Chavkin

Scenic Designer: Christopher Ash; Costume Designer: KJ Kim; Lighting Designer: Bradley King; Composer, Music Director, Sound Designer: Chad Raines; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Jane Guyer Fujita; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Hannah Sullivan; Photographs by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre January 31-February 22, 2014

Just Girls

The new play opening tomorrow night at the Yale Repertory Theatre, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, was written by Meg Miroshnik who graduated from Yale School of Drama in 2011. The production is not a world premiere because Miroshnik’s first stop after leaving Yale was Atlanta where, as a recipient of the Alliance/Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Award, she was a resident for a year, during which time The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls was staged at the Alliance Theatre in 2012. Miroshnik had actually written the play before her final project at YSD, The Tall Girls, which was featured in the Carlotta Festival here in 2011, and that play will receive a professional staging at the Alliance this March, as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the Kendeda Award. Both plays Miroshnik describes as “coming of age” stories, and both have in common—with “girls” in their titles—a focus on young women. Tall Girls, about a high school girls basketball team, has a single male role and Russian Girls has an all-female cast.

The story concerns a Russian girl, Annie, who returns to Moscow—from LA—in 2005, to brush-up on her language skills. She finds a Russia transformed by the trappings of capitalism (this is before the global economic downturn) where young women dominate. Miroshnik says that, at the time, life expectancy for Russian males was age 57, so that her perception (Russian Girls derives from time Miroshnik spent in Moscow in that period) was of a city overrun by “hyper-feminine women, considering themselves as commodities in the booming consumer culture.”

Against this boom backdrop, Russian Girls looks at the way fairytales contribute to female identity, exploring “character archetypes” as well as “comedy stereotypes.” Situations such as encountering a girl-eating witch or having a boyfriend who is a bear are part of the matters on hand. Miroshnik’s intention is to begin with an opening that is “80% real, 20% fairytale” then switching it so that fairytale dominates reality about 80%-20%. This transformation involves highly theatrical elements that clearly are out of this world as well as absurdist details from newspapers that audiences may be surprised to learn are actually true. In other words, Russian Girls suggests that reality is never quite as obvious as we like to think it is.

But what of the reality of the Russians depicted? An interesting development that took place between the play’s initial workshop reading in Paula Vogel’s playwriting class at YSD and its first staging at Alliance was the opportunity to see the play given a studio presentation—in Moscow, in Russian! In 2010, Miroshnik went back to Moscow and the show was translated and, she says, greatly altered for use by a Russian company. Seeing the show in Russian, Miroshnik began doing “edits for speed” and was able to test her vision of Russian girls against real Russian audiences.

And will this staging be different than the one at Alliance? Quite a bit, Miroshnik says: director Rachel Chavkin, two-time OBIE-Award-winner who directed the premiere of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, has “a radically different vision of the play,” and, for starters, the Russian girls are now members of a punk band. Enter Chad Raines, YSD grad, rock-band mainstay (for his own band The Simple Pleasures and, for much of 2012-13, as guitar and synthesizer on world tour with Amanda Palmer) and Critics Circle Award-winning sound design man, to concoct songs for the group and to do that voodoo that he do so well. The Rep’s Russian Girls is bound to rock.

Whether in workshop, at Alliance, in Russian, or in rock, Miroshnik’s play seems to be showing both endurance and a certain useful malleability. While the Rep staging will no doubt be a technical marvel in many ways, the play itself seems adaptable to many kinds of spaces. Miroshnik mentions that her mentor, Paula Vogel, would point at the “third production” of a play as the point at which the playwright relinquishes it and lets it have fully a life of its own. Miroshink laughs pleasantly when I suggest that perhaps in the not-to-distant future her play will be staged by YSD students—the Yale Cab’s new season ends with a play by celebrated YSD playwriting grad Tarell Alvin McCraney. Writing plays strong in roles for women, as Miroshnik does, seems not a bad strategy for revivals.

And what’s next? Miroshnik wouldn’t give too many details about her current projects, except to say that she has been at work on a play that’s more of a character study and less an ensemble piece as both the Girls plays are, and to say that each of her plays requires “a different engine”—such as basketball or fairytales—to drive the action. Like Vogel, Miroshnik is a firm believer in “stretching or exercising a different muscle with each new play.”

In any case, it’s not too much of a stretch to expect that The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls will be a fascinating and entertaining debut of Meg Miroshnik’s work at the Yale Rep.

 

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls By Meg Miroshnik Directed by Rachel Chavkin

Yale Repertory Theatre January 31-February 22, 2014

Rock'n'Roll Diva

28337_1511823638164_1311570800_1368637_7342905_n The Yale Summer Cabaret debuted its 2010 season with cult favorite Hedwig and The Angry Inch, text by John Cameron Mitchell, songs by Stephen Trask.  Directed by Jesse Jou, artistic director of the Cab this summer, the working conceit of the piece is that we aren't watching theater but rather a rock band, The Angry Inch, led by Hedwig, perform in some dive.  Between musical numbers, Hedwig regales us with tales of her life in an ongoing monologue -- and colorful, kinky, comical, disheartening and inspiring it is.

Hedwig began life as a boy named Hansel living in East Germany before the Wall fell.  An American soldier named Luther falls in love with the "girlyboy" and in order for them to marry, Hansel, who adopts his mother's name and passport, also agrees to have a sex change operation to become female in fact.  The operation is botched and Hedwig is left genitally indeterminate -- neither male nor female, a perfect character to explore the in-between manner of the transgendered.

As Hedwig, Chad Raines is phenomenal.  His Hedwig is slyly insinuating, an introvert who has become an extrovert in self-defense.  The special condition of Hedwig's sexuality is both a trial by error that makes her grimly ironic about fate, but also a badge of honor that gives credit to her tale.  For this to work, Hedwig can't seem campy -- simply a guy in drag -- and Raines brings it off admirably.  He gives Hedwig an aloof Dietrich air that can veer into Janis-like vocal lacerations at will.

The latter are fueled by the vulnerability of Hedwig's romantic attachment to Tommy Gnosis, a bigtime rock star whom she had an affair with in their youth (when Tommy was a repressed Christian in a Bible Belt trailer park), and whom she now trails about the country as he enacts musical self-celebration in huge arenas, performing songs Hedwig wrote with and/or for him.  According to Hedwig, Tommy is her missing other half, separated from her à la  Aristophanes' story in Plato's  Symposium.  The double whammy -- thwarted romance, thwarted career -- makes Hedwig a true rock diva, showing us the scars on her heart.

But our Hedwig is also cruel (the East German accent helps with that, ja) to herself and to her smitten assistant Yitzhak (Adina Verson), a one-time drag queen whom Hedwig insists wear butch clothing -- in this production, vintage Grunge.  Yitzhak gets no spoken lines -- except for two 'unprintable' epithets directed at her lover/boss -- but Verson's eyes speak plenty as Yitzhak shares the limelight with Hedwig, providing powerful vocal backup, or cringes somewhere in the background as Hedwig confides -- or performs confiding -- in the audience.

The backing band kicks ass and theater-goers who aren't used to musicals that really rock may be somewhat taken aback.  This is not a rock musical with songs cleaned up for the stage in Broadway's neutered idea of what rock sounds like. The Cab space is, appealingly, just the sort of basement venue Hedwig might be playing in the play's reality, and it's easy enough to feel like a spectator in a club, fascinated by a performer who lets it all hang out, even throwing tantrums at the band that may be real or may be staged, or both.

At the heart of it all is the girlyboy with the brittle wit, the belting voice, and an array of costumes -- the Ziggy Stardust get-up was a dead ringer -- that, like the songs, trigger glam memories and rock'n'roll dreams.

As the song by Spoon says: "when you don't believe, it shows, they tear out your soul / when you believe, they call it rock'n'roll."

I call this rock'n'roll.

Yale Summer Cabaret presents Hedwig and the Angry Inch; text by John Cameron Mitchell; music and lyrics by Stephen Trask; directed by Jesse Jou; music directed by Nathan A. Roberts; photo: Nick Thigpen

June 4th-19th 2010, 8 pm. (No performances on Sunday or Monday evenings.) Additional performance, June 12th, 11 p.m.  To purchase tickets and for more information, please visit summercabaret.org or call (203) 432 1567

Connect at the Cabaret, Old Chum

It’s Valentine’s Day (aka VD).  Maybe you’ve got it covered with your favorite mating personage, your significant other(s), your steady, your squeeze, your spouse (or the person who would be that if the laws of the land permitted), but ... maybe not, maybe you’re looking to connect, somehow, someway. Maybe you turn to craigslist, home of the online hookup, or maybe you’re not quite ready to go virtual yet, so you look at “Missed Connections” hoping against hope that someone out there, someone whose path you’ve already crossed -- in line at Subway, at the bank, on that same path you walk every day to class, on the subway -- is desperately seeking you again, to get your digits, your screenname, the key to your city . . .

Chad Raines, of the local band The Simple Pleasure, has concocted the music, lyrics and book for Missed Connections, a guilty pleasure based on online personals, up for its final showing today at Yale Cabaret, and it’s a blast of sound, movement, and cagey, collective jeering at the pathetic losers we all risk being when we’re lookin’ for love, or, if not love exactly, then at least that special someone who will let you massage his or her feet ...

Pick your favorite moment: the phys ed girl, suffering from diarrhea, pining for the guy who will examine her stool (how much more intimate does it get?), or the guy at the Subway, intoning, in a hilarious Barry White take-off, how he noticed that girl in line with him, but was scared off when she ordered for two; or the gent with binoculars who likes to watch his neighbor take out her trash; or the pissed-off, stood-up woman who gives us a lesson in etiquette: if you’re married and seeking discreet connection on the side, it’s just not cool to be a no-show to someone else who’s married and seeking same ... there might even be a sitter’s fee involved!

The songs are high volume and extremely active.  Jennifer Harrison Newman once again choreographs the impossibly small “stage”at the Cabaret -- including a line dance, led by Raines, that’s so close you might catch a spray of sweat.  Director Christopher Mirto keeps the show loose and juicy, but also cheerily inviting -- it feels at times like we’re at “dating camp” and the cast are our counselors, trying to get us out of our shells.

There’s never a dull moment because you never know what’s coming next -- erotic tableaux, condoms flung to the crowd, a get-up and boogie number with lyrics shouting “woman for woman, man for man” rather than “celebrate good times, c’mon!”

And who knows, when it’s over there might even be a line on craigslist for you: You were at Yale Cab last weekend with some bozo and/or bimbo you clearly weren’t that into. I was the ____ with the ______.  Hope to see you there in two weeks (Feb 25-27) when the Yale Cab will feature Radio Station, inspired by the work of Shogo Ohta and the Pacific Performance Project/East.   Come alone, if you dare...

Missed Connections a new musical by Chad Aaron Raines directed by Christopher Mirto

Special Valentine's Performance! Sunday Feb 14 @ 8pm

How you gonna meet your missed connection?

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