Review: Yaga

by Lynn on October 4, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Kat Sandler

Set and costumes by Joanna Yu

Lighting by Jennifer Lennon

Sound by Christopher Ross-Ewart

Cast: Claire Armstrong

Will Greenblatt

Seana McKenna

Playwright/director Kat Sandler gives the Baba Yaga myths her wild twists and treatment with terrific results.

The Story. Yaga is based on the Slavic folk tales of Baba Yaga, a supernatural woman who may or may not be evil, or helpful etc.

The Production. Kat Sandler is a gifted playwright whose stories are often off the wall funny, irreverent and wild. The dialogue comes fast and furious.  The jokes are sharp and that sure is evident with Yaga. Sandler loves the Baba Yaga story and gives it her own spin.

Joanna Yu’s set is composed of worn wood pillars, rough hewn, darkish and could be of another time. It could be a shack in the woods or a rustic cottage.

A professor named Katherine who specializes in bones and their history is interviewed by a young man named Henry. Henry might be in his 20s and flirts with her –she’s in her 60s. She flirts back. He tries to keep up but he’s no match for her. Do they sleep together? Who can tell, certainly not Henry because he soon goes missing after that encounter.

Then we have a woman cop named Carson who is on the case but has to deal with a detective named Rapp who horns in on the investigation of the missing man. Does he do it because Carson is a woman and he thinks he’s better at his job than she is of hers? Hard to tell.  Then there is an old Slavic woman named Elaina who has her own mystery. Who is she? Is she related to any of the other women?

Kat Sandler also directs her own script. I generally don’t think that’s a good idea? I think it gets tricky when the writer should be told to edit by the director and they are the same person. Similarly, someone might also have to tell the director to rein in the creativity. But with Kat Sandler that doesn’t happen here. Sandler is so used to writing tight, smart lines that tell the story swiftly and efficiently that there is no flab.  And with Yaga she knows how to direct her stellar cast.  It’s not just the dialogue that sings. There are the side-long glances that are killer too.

Let’s start with Seana McKenna who plays Katherine, the professor among others including the older Elaina. McKenna is of course a stalwart of the Stratford festival but she also challenges herself in the off season.  Last year she played the lead in Lear as in King Lear.

 In Yaga McKenna is formidable as Katherine.  Irony and sarcasm cascade of her like a waterfall. Her characters know how and like to make men uncomfortable. She dangles Henry who tries to come on to her.  She is direct and brutally funny with others.  She knows how to float a laugh line so that it just sails into the air and hits its mark. And she knows how to do a double take beautifully. She is mesmerizing.

Claire Armstrong plays detective Carson among others.  Carson is a bit skittish when she feels Rapp the detective is horning in on her territory regarding the missing Henry. Armstrong also plays others that are distinct, smart and know how to do humour, seriously.

And finally there is Will Greenblatt who plays both Henry and Rapp. Again, they are distinct.  Henry is a bit of a puppy when he flirts with Katherine the professor.  She’s a cougar. He’s a puppy. There is no contest. As Rapp he is more confident and brash.

Comment. Yaga is a saga that spans generations, social conventions, and mores.  It’s about ageism, shifting social ideas, fairy tale villains, our idea of witches, the ambiguousness of good and evil and is it always black and white. The beauty of Yaga is that Kat Sandler has taken a folk tale and made it her own. There are layers and layers to this story. And mystery. Who are all these people really? What happened to Henry?

This is Kat Sandler at her best.

Tarragon Theatre presents:

Began: Sept. 17, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 20, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, approx.

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