Russian Magic

Ryan Kravetz's set design for Urban Stages's holiday family show, The Magical Forest of Baba Yaga, with scenic art by Alexander Solodukho, is positively beautiful. The playing space is transformed into a green and gold forest, evoked by a canopy of gilded leaves, a molded cliff, giant moss-colored toadstools, and a waterfall of turquoise satin. Reaching up from this landscape are two tall, gold-veined, sadly slouching trees. As we discover in the first lines of this play, those trees used to be Fred and Egon, two little boys from New York City. Their Russian-born mother, Lisa, warned them not to stray into the forest in Central Park or they might be captured by the Baba Yaga, Russian folklore's legendary "witch of the wood." That is exactly what has happened.

In Baba Yaga, Stanton Wood's translation of Eugene Schwartz's early-20th-century Russian play The Two Maples, Lisa (Maria Silverman) ventures into the forest to find her sons. Guided by their voices, Lisa tries to get Baba Yaga to free the children. Matters are complicated by the helpfulness of Lisa's eldest son, Ivan (Aidan Koehler), who both needs his mother and needs to prove his independence and indispensability. The Baba Yaga assigns Lisa some impossible tasks as a condition for her sons' release. Ultimately, Lisa learns that the only power she needs to break the witch's spell is one she already has lots of—love.

This is a great show to bring the family to see, especially if the prospect of seeing yet another adaptation of A Christmas Carol makes you want to shut yourself up in Scrooge's counting house until February. Wood's story is traditional yet innovatively told, and winningly rooted in New York City problems. For example, the Circe-like witch transforms people into the animals they most resemble, so a real estate broker (Ned Massey) becomes a ravenous bear—and continues, in this predicament, to try to tout his hottest Manhattan properties.

Adults will get certain jokes, but the strong plot, Colm Clark's plaintive and whimsical songs, and Russian director Aleksey Burago's breathtaking stagecraft will keep young children involved until the end. The children who saw it with me were delighted and paid attention all the way through. They disagreed over which was the best character—"the witch," "the dog," or "the mother."

The cast is uniformly strong. Silverman sings with a high, strong, and beautiful voice, and shows both Lisa's empathy and her no-nonsense toughness to great effect. The three women who play the boys—Catherine Kjome, Lacey Rainey, and Aidan Koehler—pull off their shape shifting impressively. Egon, Fred, and Ivan act like modern primary-school boys, not idealized Peter Pan figures.

Massey communicates the bear-like and human qualities of his character equally well. Nikki E. Walker's Baba Yaga is a brash, haughty, exhibitionistically wicked sorceress well worth waiting to see. Kjome and Rainey double as the dog and cat, with specific and perfectly appropriate vocabularies of body language. Led by band leader Greg E. Adair, the cast members each play an instrument during the musical numbers—ranging from Massey's guitar to Walker's eerie bowed saw.

For the costumes, Lioudmila Maisouradze deserves kudos. Dressed as giant bees, the backup musicians are well integrated into the picture. The costumes of the speaking animal characters evoke a dog, cat, and bear clearly but are also sumptuous creations of multipatterned fabrics. It is apt that they dress in patchwork. In this Baba Yaga, Burago and Urban Stages have created a patchwork quilt of Old World and New, for young audiences and older ones as well.

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