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Gerald Carpenter: Fairy Tales Break Into Real Life in UCSB Produciton of ‘Russian Girls’

This Friday through a week from Saturday, the UCSB Department of Theater & Dance will produce The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls by Meg Miroshnik, a play that has won several awards, been performed in a number of prestigious venues, garnered rave reviews, been performed in Russia in Russian, and yet only will receive its "professional American premiere" at Yale Repertory Theatre in this very month of February.

Russian Girls
Madelyn Robinson and Sophie Hassett are featured performers in The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls at UCSB. (David Bazemore photo)

UCSB arts are quite cutting edge. The play is directed by Tom Whitaker, and stars six talented actors (female) from the theater program.

"On the surface," according to the UCSB press release, "the story is simple: The 20-year-old Annie, born in the Soviet Union and raised in Los Angeles, ventures to mother Russia to claim her birthright. However, her journey, set in both the rapidly changing Moscow of 2005, and the world of traditional Russian fairytales, is complex and darkly funny. Underneath the urban surface of clubs, vodka, cigarettes and rip-off designer handbags lies a darker forest. The aunt she visits turns out to be not her aunt, but someone more sinister. Her new best friend has a boyfriend who has transmogrified into a bear. Each Russian character springs from the land of fairytale — dark, comic or risqué."

Director Whitaker confesses to being under the play's spell: “I’ve never read a play like it," he says (and when you think of how many plays he must have read in his career, this is quite a statement). "This ‘once upon a time’ tale is a great story. It’s an exciting journey; a wild ride that takes us to unfamiliar places — yet these places seem oddly familiar. The play has mystery, danger, magic, humor and adventure.”

In principle, all people feel equally the tug of their genetic homeland, so why does it often appear as if the Russians are more equal than others, in this respect? Russian artists, especially, seem to experience this connection to their homeland as a kind of categorical imperative. Why else would Prokofiev leave the West and move back to Stalin's Russia? All too often, tribalism trumps liberty.

Even when the choice is not so stark, the pull of the native land is powerful. When Gerald Murphy wrote to his friend, poet and stateman Archibald Macleish, pleading with him to come back to live on the French Riviera, Macleish sat down and wrote one of his greatest poems, "American Letter," to try to explain why he would not come:

This, this is our land, this is our people,
This that is neither a land nor a race. We must reap
The wind here in the grass for our soul's harvest:
Here we must eat our salt or our bones starve.
Here we must live or live only as shadows.

Still, Macleish went to Europe, and returned home to stay, as an adult. He knew his homeland from experience. Annie, in Miroshnik's play, was brought to this country as a babe in arms, and knows of life in Russia only what she has been told by her parents and the others of the large exile community in Los Angeles. She forms, inevitably, a romantic picture of that life, and though she has lived in the United States for most of her 21 years, she thinks of herself as a Russian.

In the same way, Americans of Irish descent often grow up thinking of themselves as "Irish," and when they travel to what they believe to be their homeland, they are shocked and hurt to be hailed, not as kinfolk, but "Yanks." Annie doesn't have that problem: Indeed, when she returns to where she was born, the Russians mostly accept her as one of them — for better or worse — and begin dictating terms.

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls shows now through Feb. 22 (no performance this Monday) in the UCSB Performing Arts Theater. Tickets are $17 for general admission, $13 for students, seniors and UCSB faculty and staff, and they are available by phone at 805.893.7221 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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