Yaga is a 3-dimensional exploration of myth as a cyclical being that lives forever.
We are steeped in a culture that tends to categorize women in one of three ways: the sexy young ingénue, the nurturing mother, and the invisible crone. The last category can be frustrating, but also very freeing: once a woman is no longer seen to be consumable, she can finally begin to consume. Kat Sandler’s Yaga, now playing at Tarragon Theatre, takes the Slavic legend of Baba Yaga and turns it into a supernatural small-town detective story, with delightful results.
Baba Yaga (Seana McKenna) immediately leaps to her own defense at the start of the play. Depending on how you see it, Yaga is either a wizened, evil old crone who devours children and crushes men’s bones, or a benevolent trickster with little patience for those who offer her insufficient thanks for her boons. In Sandler’s play, she’s a stand-in for the aging, invisible woman, whose presence goes unrecorded unless she does something for – or to – men.
A college student named Henry (Will Greenblatt), heir to a yogurt fortune, goes missing soon after recording a podcast about female serial killers with osteology professor Katherine (also McKenna). The two were also engaged in a sexual relationship with murky ethical grounds, as she is a professor at his institution, and almost 40 years his senior. The missing persons case is presided over by police detective Carson (Claire Armstrong), and private investigator Rapp (also Greenblatt), who has no actual detective license and little grasp on advanced vocabulary, but ‘manserts’ himself into the case regardless.
Armstrong, Greenblatt and McKenna are all adept at creating multiple distinct characters within an evening. Greenblatt’s obnoxious men each exhibit a different kind of entitled swagger. Armstrong has an appealingly varied set of roles: from nosy, rambling neighbour to uptight, awkward officer, and she and Greenblatt have an easy, lived-in chemistry in their detective scenes.
Unsurprisingly, however, it’s McKenna in her range of powerful older women who steals every scene she’s in – or, rather, claims what’s rightfully hers. Her Baba Yaga is a masterpiece of cutting wit and disdain; Katherine is smart, imperious, and sexy. McKenna plays a café owner as deeply detached and weary beyond her years, and a very elderly woman as irrepressibly playful. It’s a treat to watch her submerge herself in each part.
Sandler’s banter is always a joy to listen to, acidic, funny, and relentlessly snappy, no matter who is speaking. Sometimes it goes on a bit past necessary, and all in all, the play might retain its furious urgency a little more effectively with about 15 minutes of cutting. Ultimately, though, it’s enough to sit and listen to the turns of phrase and dry observations roll in.
In a way, the mystery aspect of Yaga is its least compelling part, and an astute or suspicious viewer is likely to figure out some of the twists before they’re presented. This doesn’t stop them from being satisfying when they do play out, though, because folklore is about inevitability, rather than surprise.
The set, by Joanna Yu, doesn’t quite give us the fabled house on chicken legs, but instead presents an effective blank wooden playing space overgrown with birch trees. The actors also make good use of the space around the stage and even slightly into the audience, giving the production an even more three-dimensional feel.
Three-dimensional is, in fact, the word for this show, which explores its central myth in multiple ways. It feels well fleshed-out, while getting to the bare bones of women’s fears and desires, and then gleefully grinding them up. Sandler circumvents the stereotype of all wicked woods-women as easily erased with a wrong word, presenting Baba Yaga and her story as cyclical beings who can live forever.
Though we may have other stories about Ukraine and bad men lighting up the world stage these days, this one’s much more fun.
- Yaga runs until October 20, 2019 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace (30 Bridgman St.)
- Shows are Tuesday – Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2:30pm, and select Saturdays at 2:30pm.
Tickets range from $22 – $60 and can be purchased online, by phone at 416-531-1827, or in-person at the Theatre Box Office.. Discounts are available for seniors, students and groups and arts workers.
- The production contains stage haze, mature language, and scenes of non-graphic sex and violence.
- The show runs approximately 2 hours 30 minutes with intermission.
Photo of Claire Armstrong, Will Greenblatt, and Seana McKenna in Yaga by Cylla von Tiedemann