The best way to learn a language is through immersion. And you could make the argument that the best way to explore a nation’s artistic roots is to study its folk tales. Should the folk tales be read in their native language, all the better.
So for seven years, aspiring playwright Meg Miroshnik went to Moscow to work as a writer and learn Russian. She spent afternoons hunkered down in the children’s section of a Moscow bookstore, trying to decipher rudimentary Russian storybooks. She read tales of the evil witch Baba Yaga, and yarns about the little girl Masha and the dangerous bear.
Looking back, Miroshnik is not sure how much those narratives helped her learn to speak Russian. But the stories of treacherous witches and menacing bears stoked Miroshnik’s imagination and fueled her dark sense of humor.
This month, audiences will get a chance to step into the mystical vision Miroshnik has created in her new play, “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls,” premiering on the Hertz Stage of the Alliance Theatre. The play, which runs through Feb. 26, is the 2012 winner of the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition. The invitation-only competition, in its eighth year, draws scores of submissions from students at the country’s top graduate drama schools. The winning play is produced by the Alliance.
For a young playwright, it’s a huge springboard. Miroshnik just graduated from Yale School of Drama and was certain she’d have to slog away for years before her work saw a major stage. But the way she wove mythical elements into a story about six women in contemporary Russia put her a few steps ahead in a craft where success is more elusive than failure.
This week the play was named a finalist for the international Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in playwriting, which recognizes an outstanding, new English-language play by a woman. It was an honor once snagged by Wendy Wasserstein, the late Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner. This year’s Blackburn winner will be announced Feb. 28 in London.
On its face, the premise of the play is simple: A young woman who was born in Russia but raised in the United States moves back to connect with her roots. She takes a room in an apartment building, and the woman she boards with carries a striking resemblance to Baba Yaga. And that is where the play becomes an experience in magical realism. As the young woman meets other residents, their lives have much in common with characters in Russian fairy tales.
But the stories Miroshnik weaves are far from sweet. One woman is the captive of an overbearing, cruel boyfriend (the bear from Masha?). Another is a prostitute whose nature suggests fairy godmother. There are magical potatoes that Miroshnik describes as “low-tech theater magic,” and there are a few moments that owe a debt to horror movies, she said.
“The metaphors are side by side with the more fantastical elements of the play,” said Miroshnik, who is originally from Minneapolis. “It’s a very dark play, but it’s also funny. None of the characters are victims.”
As much as this play is rooted in fantasy, it owes a great debt to the women of modern Russia, who have been swept aside and pushed forward by the upheaval there.
“Having read many plays about post-1991 Russia, this is the first play that captures the fun as well as the turmoil of intense and quick social change,” said Celise Kalke, Alliance director of New Projects, in an email.
Miroshnik spent as much time reading children’s books in Moscow as she did people watching. She was particularly drawn to the plight of its women and the contrast of their circumstances.
“You would see these female pensioners begging on the street because there was no room for them in the new Russia,” Miroshnik said.
Stalking down the same street would be the new, moneyed women of Moscow, which became one of the lasting images of the city for Miroshnik.
“They were the brightly feathered birds of that city, out wearing stilettos in six inches of snow,” Miroshnik said.
This young playwright has envisioned an enchanted world where all these women pull from their past to create a new folk tale of modern Russia.
“The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls”
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Feb. 11; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Feb. 12; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14-16; 8 p.m. Feb. 17; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Feb. 18; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Feb. 19; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21-23; 8 p.m. Feb. 24; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Feb. 25; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Feb. 26. Hertz Stage, Alliance Theatre. $25, $30. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org.
Alliance Theatre Festival of New Plays
with finalists for the 2013 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition
“Shoe Story” by Ben Snyder. 2:30 p.m. Monday. Free.
“We Fight We Die” by Tim Guillot. 7 p.m. Monday. Free.
“Whales” by Bob Bartlett. 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. Free.
“Lost Cause” by Alexander Maggio. 7 p.m. Tuesday. Free. Alliance Theatre’s third floor Black Box Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.alliance theatre.org.