Stage Door Review
Monday, October 7, 2019
written & directed by Kat Sandler
Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, Toronto
September 25-October 20, 2019
Yaga: “They would rather think I eat children than have them”
Yaga, currently having its world premiere at the Tarragon Theatre, is a rare misfire from the popular and prolific playwright Kat Sandler. Sandler moves from her signature genre of comedy into mystery, albeit a comic mystery, and produces a story that quite unlike her previous work is difficult to follow and ends with several twists that make nonsense of what has gone before. Sandler simultaneously tries to have the mystery represent a commentary on why men fear women but the result is a mystery where we really don’t care whether it is solved or not.
Most people, if they have heard of Baba Yaga at all, have either heard of her as a character in Russian fairy tales or may know that Mussorgsky musically depicted her famous house on chicken legs in his Pictures at an Exhibition (1847). When she is not dwelling deep in the forest, she flies about in a mortar with a pestle and uses a broom to sweep away any traces she leaves. Her nature is completely ambiguous. She is depicted both as a healer and as a cannibal who especially enjoys eating children. (For those who may be seeing Dvořák’s opera Rusalka (1901) at the COC this October, the witch Ježibaba is the Czech version of the same character.)
Sandler’s play begins with a monologue by Baba Yaga (Seana McKenna), who comically dismisses the way she is portrayed in fairy tales and points out the sexism and ageism involved in the male portrayal of women after menopause as useless hags. These monologues delivered by McKenna in a Russian accent punctuate the action and provide increasingly detailed information about the character. The most important information for Dandler’s plot is that there are always three Yagas. Sometimes they are imagined as three sisters all with the same name. Sometimes they are imagined as grandmother, mother and daughter. Sandler doesn’t mention it but these three phases of womanhood correspond to the three phases of the moon that in classical Greek mythology are represented by the threefold goddess Hecate, Selene and Artemis.
After Yaga’s first monologue, we meet a university student Henry (Will Greenblatt), who is anxious to show his lizard to his science professor Katherine (also McKenna), a specialist in bones. Henry thinks he has discovered something amazing in noticing the lizard is growing back its tail, whereas the professor knows this is nothing new. It’s the result of a sacrifice pars pro toto.
In the next scene we meet the private investigator Rapp (also Greenblatt), who is looking into the disappearance of Henry, the heir to a yogurt manufacturing empire. He asks for the help of the local sheriff Carson (Claire Armstrong), who claims that her department has concluded its investigation. Rapp believes it was not thorough enough and thinks there is more to uncover if they both work together.
From this point on scenes alternate between the present as Rapp interviews women with some connection to the Henry case and the past as Henry meets various of these same women. While Greenblatt plays only Henry and Rapp, McKenna and Armstrong play as many as five different characters each. Sandler’s text does not always make clear who Henry or Rapp is talking to. Though McKenna and Armstrong are excellent at distinguishing among their many characters and have costume and hairstyle changes to help them, Greenblatt does virtually nothing to distinguish Henry from Rapp and except from the occasional use of glasses for Henry does not even have costume changes to distinguish his two characters. This naturally makes Sandler’s double plot very hard to follow.
In addition to Sandler’s plots in the past and present, Baba Yaga’s monologues retell the tale known as “The Maiden Tsar”, one of the many folk tales collected by ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev in his influential collection Russian Fairy Tales (1855-63). “The Maiden Tsar” concerns the merchant’s son Ivan who visits each of the Baba Yagas, here conceived as sisters, in turn. When the third and youngest prepares to eat him, he saves himself by a means foolishly revealed to him by the second Baba Yaga. Thus, during the course of the action we not only have to note the parallels between Henry and Rapp, but between them and Ivan in the fairy tale. Besides this we are meant to guess who the third Baba Yaga could be when there are only two female actors in the play.
Sandler’s plot requires many unlikely encounters between characters that are dictated more by plot points she wants to make than by any realistic necessity. Why would a renowned osteologist ever agree to speculate on matters she says she knows nothing of for a student’s podcast except that Sandler’s plot requires it?
The result of all this complication and lack of clarity is that one is engaged neither in the main plot with Rapp nor the parallel plot with Henry nor in the fairy tale with Ivan. Were I not a reviewer, I, like the couple next to me, could happily have left at intermission. If you stay, you find that Sandler ends the play with a major twist that makes nonsense of how the previous scenes had been staged. Then she follows that with a second twist that moves the play from believability to fantasy.
If Sandler’s purpose in using the stories about Baba Yaga is to show how men objectify their fear of female power through stories about witches and then use these stories as a means of oppressing woman, Sander fails almost completely. If anything, the supposed humour of Yaga seems to demonstrate that men are quite justified in fearing female power.
The little that maintains our interest in Yaga are the wonderfully varied performances of Sean McKenna and Claire Armstrong. I think this must be the first time I have seen McKenna play multiple roles in a single play and she clearly enjoys it. The ironic tone she uses, even if in a Russian accent, is familiar from many other performances. Yet, she lends a piercing intelligence and enigmatic nature to the character of the professor Katherine. What will surprise frequent Stratford Festival-goers are McKenna’s hilarious depiction of working-class women – one a huffy waitress at a diner, one a truck driver. Besides this, she is both funny and moving as an elderly woman with dementia. It’s a delight to see that McKenna’s range is even larger that we ever expected.
Claire Armstrong is equally adept at keeping the many characters she plays absolutely distinct. She makes her role as Sheriff Carson so complex and relatable that it is a pity Sandler decides to flatten the role in the latter part of the play. Armstrong is funny in completely different ways – tough as a female gym jock and goofy as female country bumpkin.
With McKenna and Armstrong doing so much to distinguish their many roles and to make Sandler’s confusing play as clear as possible, it is very unfortunate that Will Greenblatt can’t muster even minor changes in speech or body language to distinguish Henry from Rapp.
Yu’s concept for the set as a birch forest covering the stage is moodily effective and Jennifer Lennon’s lighting can change the atmosphere from dully realistic to frighteningly eerie in a moment.
Fans of Sean McKenna and Claire Armstrong will certainly want to see these two on stage and in a small venue like the Tarragon Mainspace. But those who think a mystery/thriller should, at a minimum be followable to have any impact will be disappointed. It would be more enlightening simply to stay home and read Afanasyev’s collection to get a better sense of the supernatural Russian horror that Sandler tries but fails to evoke.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Seana McKenna and Will Greenblatt; Claire Armstrong, Will Greenblatt and Seana McKennaWill Greenblatt, Seana McKenna and Claire Armstrong. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.
For tickets, visit www.tarragontheatre.com.