One of our deepest underlying fears is the fear of erasure. We feel it in the chill we experience when considering the desaparecidos: the luckless inhabitants of Spain and Latin America who, in the '70s and '80s, were made to disappear because of political affiliations or beliefs not shared by the powers that be.
That fear is also voiced by the dyevushki—a quartet of struggling young women in contemporary Russia—in playwright Meg Miroshnik's streetwise, comical and cautionary drama THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS at Manbites Dog Theater. When central character Annie learns that her neighbor, Masha, is unwittingly enduring her own slow erasure by living with an abusive boyfriend, Annie vows that she won't let her vanish "like you were never here."
As Miroshnik's meditation on legacy and identity unfolds, we gradually realize that most of the women we encounter are metaphorically or literally in similar straits. Stark economics, an inadequate education—and a messy tryst with a rich Russian oligarch—all threaten to remove Katya, a sharp-minded math whiz, from the lives of those she loves and prevent her from becoming her best self. Nastasia's reliance on an untrustworthy man rewrites a fundamental part of her identity and leaves her future in doubt.
But some of the most enigmatic questions of erasure and identity here lie with Annie, a first-generation American whose Jewish parents were allowed to leave Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. By the time we meet, that migration has already caused a number of individual sea-changes. Her mom, Olga, is no longer a mathematician, but a California hairdresser. Tellingly, Annie informs us that she's forsaken her birth name, Anya, for her current one—after the famous orphan. She's already lost her Russian accent and is losing her native tongue.
These and other erasures prompt Olga to send Annie, alone, to spend a summer in her Russian hometown. But this hero's quest in the making takes on added dimensions as the women are forced to confront and edit the narratives they're living. Folk and fairy tales lose little of their power when they go urban. Masha's abusive relationship in an apartment on the outskirts of Moscow is patterned too closely for coincidence on a Russian variant of the Red Riding Hood story. Katya's dilemma is framed by an Alexander Afanasyev folk tale whose heroine shares her name, and Nastasia's tale is too suprising to spoil here.
But when Annie's encounter with her not-aunt Yaroslava begins to echo harrowing stories of Baba Yaga, she finds expert advice from fellow survivors-in-progress, all deconstructing the charming—and potentially fatal—narratives that our cultures program into us as children. This crew realizes the encrypted survival strategies dramaturge Dierdre Shipman comments on in the playbill: Even fairy tales involve bribes. And, at some point in every folk tale, the clever hero knows that action must be taken.
Under Jules Odendahl-James' insightful, surefooted direction, a talented ensemble delves deeply into the layers of this literary Matryoshka doll. Stage veteran Carly Prentis Jones fully conveys the charming monstrosity of Yaroslava. Jessica Flemming, Mikaela Saccoccio and Jeanine Frost convincingly flesh out Masha, Katya and Nastasia. We believe Faye Goodwin as a naïve Annie who must come of age in a hurry. Laurel Ullman, as usual, finds the keys to unlock compelling characters, including mother Olga, a customs officer and a wicked witch of another stripe.
If words can imprison, as Miroshnik notes, they can also, ultimately, liberate. Odendahl-James and her team pursue figures of speech that remain entirely too literalized: a bear of a boyfriend, a witch of an old lady—and a culture justifiably afraid of certain sociopolitical questions, whose past can seem intent on devouring its future. Post-Soviet Russia isn't the only place we encounter such figures at present.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lose yourself"