Before the gentrification and revitalization of the downtown Durham neighborhood surrounding the old Durham Bulls Stadium, there was a storefront theater company with the unusual, catchy name Manbites Dog Theater. More than twenty-five years later they are still there, presenting cutting-edge plays that, for the most part, do justice to their topsy-turvy name. Their current production is Minneapolis-born playwright Meg Miroshnik’s The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, an allegorical, quasi-political fable that, despite its title, is definitely not for children. If you like watching young, beautiful, statuesque women in five-inch stiletto heels and almost cartoon-like tight, short skirts reciting monologues just inches from the first row, then you will love this play. End of review. I am only being partially facetious.

For what is the most basic of nondescript black box theaters, when you enter Manbites Dog Theater you are almost always surprised by their creative configurations of both the seating space and the “stage.” This was one of the most elaborate sets (designed by Sonya Drum) I have seen there, and they effectively used every inch and every prop for the unusual storyline.   

On its surface, Fairytale Lives has all the characteristics of Russian folklore including Peter and the Wolf, but there also lurks a scathing rebuke, along the lines of Pussy Riot, of the regime of Vladimir Putin. Although it begins with the ubiquitous “once upon a time,” events are skewed, worlds collide, and there are no happy endings.

The play opens with Masha (Jessica Flemming), who lives with a bear in a cottage in the woods, setting up the narrative and tone for the evening. Sex, fantasy, and ambition are intertwined in such a way that has no resemblance to your childhood Grimm’s tales.

The central character is Annie (Faye Goodwin), who left the Soviet Union as a young girl with her mother to immigrate to the United States. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the proliferation of capitalism (and extremely wealthy men to marry) Russia now looked pretty good to return to. We have a comic scene with Olga, Annie’s mother (Laurel Ullman in one of several roles), explaining in a stereotypical, comic-book Russian accent, why America was a disappointment and her daughter Annie is going back to Russia. Olga’s old friend, Yaraslova (Carly Prentis Jones), agrees to take Annie in, but there is much more to Yaraslova. Jones absolutely steals the show with her dual portrayal where she is also Baba Yaga, the legendary witch of Russian folklore who fattens up young girls to later eat them, rides around on a mortar and pestle (no, really!), but who also ages one year every time someone asks her a question. This is the kind of part where you can excuse overacting — it practically screams to do so — and this portrayal was worth the price of admission. Sonya Drum, who also designed the costumes, and mask designer Will Deedler were integral to the presentation of this character.

Annie eventually meets her neighbor Masha and the two of them have one of the finest scenes in the play as they quietly talk, sitting outside Masha’s cottage and tell their backgrounds to each other. It is a welcome respite from the overwrought, over-sexualized monologues of Katya (Mikaela Saccoccio) and Nastya (Jeanine Frost), whose goals are basically to meet and marry wealthy men. There is a great deal of coarse language as these women describe others who are basically like themselves, but have succeeded in making their catch. Equality of the sexes seems to not even be on the horizon and that point is made even further by Russian words for actual little girls and those over 65: there is nothing in-between. 

The part of Annie is well-written as both the antithesis of the Russian girls and about as American as you can get, without her actually texting and repeatedly saying “like, Omigod.”  Goodwin, as Annie, stands out as being really the only actress (no men in the cast) not hiding behind a caricatured creation and her portrayal grows in stature, despite her being almost a foot shorter than some of the others.  Another wonderful scene is where Baba Yaga demands that Annie peel a basket of potatoes, but using her fingernails instead of a peeler. Out comes a wonderfully costumed potato (Jeanine Frost — imagine putting that part on your acting resume) who battles Annie.

There are numerous stage entrances and exits from all corners, as well as characters suddenly appearing from darkened props and corners of the set. Guest director Jules Odendahl-James keeps a high level of anticipation and interest in the characters, despite my feeling that the playwright’s time spent on excessive solitary monologues could have been better spent expanding the ensemble work and furthering the fantasy element of the story. Bart Matthews is the musician who sat unobtrusively off in the corner playing keyboards, guitar, and accordion in a very low-key manner that supported the dialogue but did not intrude.

So, you have a great variety of reasons to see The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls. Whether it’s quirky political statements, a bravura performance of an old-school witch, wonderful costumes and sets, or leering at almost-dressed young women, these ninety minutes spent at Manbites Dog Theater will be well spent.

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls continues through Saturday, May 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.