Meg Miroshnik’s “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” might sound sweet and cozy, but it’s quite the opposite. Miroshnik employs grim Russian folktales to reflect women’s survival in freewheeling contemporary Moscow. Manbites Dog Theater’s production is equally freewheeling, a darkly humorous journey featuring strong acting and bold direction.
Russian folktales take place in distant times but are filled with universal morals. Here, the tale of witch Baba Yaga, who eats little girls, becomes a story about Annie, sent by her Russian-born mother to the homeland to reclaim a family apartment from a wily old aunt. The fable of a husband turned bear translates into next-door neighbor Masha and her abusive lover. The legend of peasant girl Katya befriending the czar’s daughter only to become her mother morphs into a conflict among a wealthy man’s wife, mistress and daughter.
The script emphasizes the plight of women trying to balance expectations of dutiful submission with new opportunities for riches and freedoms.
Faye Goodwin gives Annie a wide-eyed innocence that’s soon undone by witnessing the sad lives of her Moscow friends. Jessica Flemming imbues Masha with winning determination to control her fate, a brashly attractive portrayal. Mikaela Saccoccio’s hardened Katya knows how to get what she wants, despite dangerous consequences. As the witch-like aunt, Carly Prentis Jones delightfully voices sweet seductions and believably physicalizes the little-old-lady aspects.
Jeanine Frost easily alternates the quietly elegant czar’s daughter with the self-confident, practical prostitute, Natasha. Laurel Ullman’s world-weary Olga, Annie’s mother, and her icy Valentina, wife of Katya’s lover, complete the play’s fascinating range of characters.
Director Jules Odendahl-James elicits confident, highly individualized performances that nail the humor while indicating hidden struggles. Bart Matthews’ folky-funky original music, played live on keyboards and guitar, adds rich atmosphere, as does Jenni Mann Becker’s textured lighting.
Set designer Sonya Drum’s eclectic piles of furniture and bare electric lamps create a fantasy world, while her costumes of tight skirts and fancy high heels indicate the flashy world of modern Moscow women.
There’s adult language and situations, and the multiple strands of story lines are not always clear. But the unique script and its first-rate execution make the production strongly recommended.
What: “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls”
Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham
When: 8:15 p.m. Friday, Saturday and April 30, May 1-2 and 6-9; 2 p.m. May 3
Tickets: $10-$25 (students $5-$10; seniors/military $2 off)
Info: 919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org