The centuries-old legend of Baba Yaga is most famous for reminding us why we love surrealist horror films, Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and October for being the scariest time of the year.
Start with a supernatural Slavic forest-dweller, famous for living in a shack built on chicken legs and flying around in a mortar while wielding a pestle and a silver birch broom. While original folklore suggests that Baba Yaga can be kind and helpful, more often than not she’s cast as remorseless and out to terrify. She also has, on occasion, something of a taste for extra-tender baby flesh.
Most telling is the way that she’s usually depicted in film, books, paintings, and—perhaps most nightmare-inducing—bedtime stories. Even though the origin-story had Baba Yaga as more than happy to provide help and guidance, she is mostly now seen as an old, ugly, ill-tempered, and generally nasty-tempered witch.
All of the above serves as inspiration for playwright Kate Sandler’s 2019 comedy thriller YAGA, which kicks off Touchstone Theatre’s 2022/2023 theatre season.
One of big threads running through the production, suggests director Roy Surette, is the way that we look at characters like Baba Yaga through lenses that carry larger societal and cultural biases.
“In the play, Yaga has quite a bit to say about things like childless witches,” Surette offers. “Do you ever hear about caring, reproducing witches?”
YAGA takes place in a small town where a college-boy Casanova/well-off yogurt-empire heir suddenly disappears, the town sheriff (Genevieve Fleming) forced to work with a big-city private eye (Aidan Correi) to solve the mystery. The prime suspect is forensic bone expert Professor Katherine Yazow (stage and screen veteran Colleen Wheeler), whose endless appetite for younger men suggests she might be more than passingly familiar with a certain Baba Yaga.
“They call her ‘The Boner Beast’,” Surette says laughingly of the Yazow character. “She has a reputation of sleeping with her younger male students. She’s sort of the central character we follow as the prime suspect.”
YAGA keeps its cast busy.
“The fun thing about the play is that three actors play 15 different characters,” Surette notes. “Each of the women play five and six characters, and the fellow plays both the missing bad boy, and the private detective. So it’s got great theatricality.”
In addition to updating a mythical character for a more modern and progressive time, YAGA touches on everything from big-city versus small-town values to ingrained views on sexuality to generational divides.
“There’s lots there,” Surette acknowledges. “Like, for example, the next generation versus the current generation. There’s a really great kind of millennial joke that’s part of the plot where someone doesn’t want to do things the traditional way in the world of Yaga witch mythology.
“They have other ideas,” he continues, “where they want to reframe things the same way everyone is now reframing everything, going ‘Why do we accept that’s the way something should be done because it’s how it’s always been done?’ The idea being there’s lots of things that we’ve been doing that need a shift and change.”
Surette notes one of Sandler’s big reasons for writing YAGA was to write a role befitting actors who are sometimes ignored in a youth-obsessed world.
“Her take in creating this play was that there are so many wonderful actors who are not in their 30s or even 40s anymore, but are in their 50s and 60s,” he says. “There are tons of great female actors, and she was like, ‘I want to write some roles for these women because they are amazing, still vibrant, sexy, and smart. So let’s go down that road.’ So that’s where she began her journey with Baba Yaga.”
Lots to think about in YAGA? Absolutely. But like the complex and often misunderstood character who inspired it, the play has a multitude of different layers.
“It’s also pretty funny for sure,” Surette says. “Besides following the mystery, and revisioning Yaga, and questioning how we perceive this character, there are some sexy laughs. There’s a lot of flirtiness in the play, so there’s a fun level of sexuality and repartee.
“YAGA also feels like it has a Halloween appeal, so it fires on different cylinders in so many different ways,” he continues. “It’s a very challenging piece for the actors and the designers, and the directing. But it’s also been lots of fun, so I’m excited we’ve been able to bring it to the stage.”
The Touchstone Theatre Production of YAGA runs to November 5 at The Cultch.