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review

Will Greenblatt and Seana McKenna in Yaga at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre.Cylla von Tiedemann

  • Title Yaga
  • Written and directed by Kat Sandler
  • Genre Comedy
  • Actors Claire Armstrong, Will Greenblatt, Seana McKenna
  • Company and venue Tarragon Theatre
  • City Toronto
  • Year Runs to Sunday, Oct. 20
  • Rating: 3 stars

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

Take one wicked witch from Slavic folklore, add a feminist reappraisal, stir in the elements of a twisty, True Detective-style thriller and sprinkle liberally with laughs. Then grind it all up with a mortar and pestle and you have Kat Sandler’s Yaga.

Sandler’s new dark and devious comedy, opening the Tarragon’s season with ghoulish glee, is a contemporary take on Baba Yaga that more than gives the fabled crone her due. In case you’re not up on your Russian fairy tales, she’s the magical hag who lives in a hut supported by chicken legs and feasts on the bones of victims after pulverizing them with said mortar and pestle.

Here, she finds her descendant in Katherine, a 60-ish, cougar-ish professor of osteology at a small-town university. She’s a woman with a formidable intellect, a Slavic bloodline and a proclivity for young male students. She was recently interviewed by one of them – Henry, a nerd with a podcast and a serial-killer obsession – and now he’s mysteriously disappeared.

Trying to track down his whereabouts are Carson, a skeptical police detective, and her partner Rapp, a credulous private eye. But don’t be too sure about those Scully-and-Mulder stereotypes – Sandler uses them only to subvert them, just as she’s out to rip apart the old misogynistic conception of Baba Yaga and, by extension, all wicked witches.

Wait – I forgot a key ingredient in the Yaga recipe: Seana McKenna. The always-bold classical actress (lately seen playing Julius Caesar at Stratford and Lear in Toronto) has taken a detour into new-play territory to portray Sandler’s Baba avatars. That is, Katherine, but also Katherine’s elderly Ukrainian-immigrant mother Yelena, the local “witch,” who can cure various ills using what one of the dim-bulb townies cheerfully refers to as “nature-pathy.”

McKenna tackles the roles – and several other minor ones – with wit and zest. Sandler’s play is about the empowerment of older women, and she walks the talk by creating characters for the actress that are, in the case of Katherine, smart, insouciant and sexy, and, in that of Yelena, shrewd and surprisingly randy.

But Sandler, as both playwright and director, hasn’t made this a star vehicle. McKenna shares the stage equally with capable young actors Claire Armstrong and Will Greenblatt, who play Carson and Rapp, respectively, as well as other characters. Greenblatt toggles between Rapp, who starts off as a bit of a jerk, and Henry, who at first seems an endearing goofball – what with that yellow Pokémon cap and all – but as things progress, turns out to be a much bigger jerk, to say the least. Armstrong alternates between likable Carson and Henry’s angry ex-girlfriend, but these characters, too, are not who they seem to be.

Sandler, that erstwhile dynamo of the indie scene who has written and staged (so the program notes remind us) 16 plays in eight years, has developed breathtaking skills. Her plot is a cunning labyrinth, and her dialogue crackles. (One of her favourite themes, a comical fixation on language, is carried over from her previous Tarragon play, Mustard.) Always plugged into pop culture, she writes with the enthusiasm of someone who binge-watches police procedurals.

She’s also keen on delivering an apologia for Baba Yaga and other female fairy-tale villains, which she does via a series of monologues spoken by a Russian-accented McKenna, presumably as Yaga herself. These interludes, with their academic flavour, might have been better integrated had they been framed as lectures delivered by Katherine to her class.

Like all good fairy tales, Yaga takes us into the woods, to a cabin where Henry – and possibly others – may have met a gruesome demise. Joanna Yu’s set is a tree-fringed forest clearing, lit for maximum gloomy effect by Jennifer Lennon, while Christopher Ross-Ewart tingles our spines with his musical score.

By the time we get there, the play has touched upon sexual abuse and acquired the shape of a revenge fantasy, but it still hasn’t lost its dark laughter. Sandler has triumphantly reclaimed the evil-woman myth. Move over, Wicked and Maleficent, and welcome Yaga to the sisterhood.

Yaga continues to Oct. 20. (tarragontheatre.com)