April 3, 2024

“Yaga” Blends Slavic Legend with Contemporary Crime Drama; Theatre Intime Delivers Strong Production of Darkly Comic Thriller

“YAGA”: Performances are underway for “Yaga.” Directed by Kat McLaughlin, the play runs through April 7 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above, eager college student Henry Kalles (Tate Keuler) and the mysterious Anna (Kristen Tan) strike up a conversation, leading to dangerous events. (Photo by Lucy Shea)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In an Encyclopedia of Legendary Creatures (1981), author Tom McGowen describes the “dreaded ogress Baba Yaga” as resembling a “frightfully ugly old woman” who had “stone teeth, and her food was people, especially children.” She lived in a hut “perched on four chicken legs” and “flew through the air after her prey in a large mortar, steered with a pestle.”

Noting the character’s basis in Slavic folklore, the website for World History Encyclopedia adds that she also is known “as guardian of the fountains of the waters of life and is sometimes seen as embodying female empowerment.”

With Yaga (2019), playwright Kat Sandler creates a psychological, darkly comic thriller that blends a contemporary reevaluation of Baba Yaga with a police procedural drama in the style of Twin Peaks or The X-Files. The script explores themes concerning ageism and gender dynamics, as well as cultural mores.

Omitting “Baba” from the title is a specific choice. Study.com notes that Baba typically means grandmother in Slavic languages. (Yaga can refer to serpent, wood nymph, or evil woman.) Yaga depicts its title character not as an elderly grandmother figure, but as a mysterious, owlish femme fatale.

In interrogating traditionally accepted portrayals of Baba Yaga as a predator and antagonist, the play clearly enters a field that by now is somewhat crowded. Broadway shows such as Into the Woods and Wicked (along with numerous films and TV series) also probe folklore and characters from yesteryear, viewing them through a contemporary lens.

But by introducing the element of the procedural drama, Sandler sets Yaga apart by going a step further. The play turns on their head the myths, archetypes, and character dynamics of our own time (or recent past) as much as it does those of earlier centuries. The extent to which the surprises and revelations late in the second act work is partly due to expectations we have built up by watching years of Law & Order reruns.

Princeton University’s student-run Theatre Intime is continuing its season with Yaga. Kat McLaughlin directs, guiding the cast and creative team through a strong, layered production that wisely prioritizes clarity in the staging of a script that revels in being enigmatic. The staging makes use of the entire theater, so that the action surrounds us.

The set design by Solomon Bergquist (who also is the production’s fight coordinator) establishes a spooky forest at night. Between two painted backdrops are poles that suggest tree bark, on an otherwise bare stage that can accommodate other settings, such as a classroom and a restaurant with a bar. The ever-present forest lets Yaga be a presence whether she is onstage or not.

The mood of the play is established by a suitably eerie, otherworldly collage of music and other sounds, synthesized by Sound Designer Orion Lopez-Ramirez, that intermittently recur at strategic points throughout the show.

Surrounded by the forest backdrops — as well as white holiday lights that Lighting Designer Elena Milliken (assisted by Rhim Andemichael) clearly intends to suggest a starlit sky — the title character (portrayed by Lana Gaige) enters.

She is outfitted in a black cloak that befits her brooding, opaque demeanor. (Milliken also designs the costumes, which aid in distinguishing the multiple characters portrayed by each actor.)

Directly addressing the audience, Yaga intersperses the main scenes with poetic, mystical monologues. One contemplates the multiple, sometimes contradictory descriptions of her. Another speech ponders the importance of the number three.

“Three is a good number,” Yaga remarks, later adding, “A baby is magic, so it’s worth it: without her, there can be no beginning, no middle, no end. So there must be three because three is forever.”

In keeping with this fixation with the number three, the script calls for three actors to portray multiple characters. In general (though not always), each actor is given the same character types. So the challenge to any cast — to which the
Theatre Intime performers successfully rise — is to make the characters similar without letting them come off as identical.

Besides the brooding, mysterious title character, Gaige also portrays the equally opaque Katherine Yazov, a college professor “in her sixties” who teaches osteology (the study of bones), and happens to be knowledgeable about the Baba Yaga tales.

Katherine’s knowledge of the Yaga legends comes to the attention of a college student “in his early twenties,” Henry Kalles (Tate Keuler), who eagerly interviews her for his podcast about historical serial killers. Henry noticeably steers the conversation so that Katherine does not deviate from or question traditionally accepted depictions of Baba Yaga as a monster.

Outside of the confines of the recording process, Henry and Katherine engage in conversations that gradually but steadily take on suggestive overtones. Sandler examines a power dynamic that, given the differences in the characters ages and positions, would cause any non-academic relationship between the two to be seen as inappropriate.

After the interview and subsequent conversation, Henry vanishes. His (offstage) parents engage the services of Charlie Rapp (also played by Keuler, who captures both of his characters’ boyish eagerness, as well as innocence that may be deceptive). A “private investigator in his late twenties,” Rapp exudes the same eager fascination with his subjects as Henry did; he is more than open to the possibility that the Baba Yaga tales are true, and are somehow being perpetuated.

This scarcely endears Rapp to the matter-of-fact, thirtysomething Detective Carson (Kristen Tan), who very reluctantly finds herself working on the case with him. Recalling the dynamic between Agents Mulder and Scully from The X-Files, Carson is a skeptical realist, which clashes with Rapp’s eagerness to believe in the folktales.

Carson and Rapp’s investigation leads to interviews with Gaige’s characters, as well as other characters portrayed by Tan — including the mysterious Anna, and Pamela Riley, who is a boxer and Henry’s ex-girlfriend. Like Carson, these characters tend to exude resolute strength (in Pamela’s case, aggression) and matter-of-factness. (Anna is darkly graceful and rather inscrutable, not unlike Katherine.)

Befiting their respective characters, there is notable contrast in the performances of Gaige and Tan, particularly with body language. Gaige’s movements generally are smooth, deliberate, and calculated, to accompany silky line deliveries. Tan’s movements (particularly for Pamela, but for other characters as well) are more percussive, to punctuate assertive, matter-of-fact dialogue — though as Anna, Tan is capable of emulating the seductive smoothness of Gaige’s speech and motions.

Sandler’s story and thematic concepts are compelling, but in some places the script feels slightly overwritten. Yaga has perhaps one monologue too many; some stage time might have been better spent on the action scenes in Act Two, which start to feel a bit rushed. That said, Sandler is skillful at constructing a plot that maintains suspense and mystery. (I was genuinely surprised by a revelation that a character is not who she appears to be, though a concomitant revelation, that two certain characters have been colluding, was somewhat less unexpected.)

The sexually charged nature of the play (along with intense discussions or portrayals of graphic content) make it suitable for mature audiences. Even adult viewers may find their limits tested by some darkly psychological subject matter.

But those who enjoy exploring the darker corners of their psyche, not to mention fans of mythology and crime dramas, should enjoy Yaga. The play is a natural fit for Theatre Intime; beyond its exploration of gender dynamics, not to mention its inclusion of a college student as one of its major characters, it captures both the dangers and exhilarating liberation of taboo exploration and discovery.

“Yaga” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through April 7.  Content advisory: due to sexual themes, profanity, and intense discussions or portrayals of other graphic content, the play is for mature audiences. For tickets, show times, and further information visit theatreintime.org.