BWW Review: Follow the Dark Winding Path to YAGA at Tarragon Theatre
Kat Sandler's new play, YAGA, is breezy and dark; goofy and mournful; bleak, gothic, shadowy, and really damn funny. When 22-year old college student Henry Callas (Will Greenblatt, a scene-stealer) goes missing, his parents hire private eye Rapp (also Will Greenblatt, still a scene-stealer) to find him. Rapp teams up with local detective Carson (Claire Armstrong, versatile and well-suited to each of her many hats), who douses Rapp's outlandish theories with a cold splash of realism. But doubts linger: Henry had been sleeping with Dr Katherine Yazov, a bone expert at the local university, played by Seana McKenna with a white-cold fire so intense it can't be contained by parentheses. Did Dr Yazov kill Henry? Unlikely - a woman in her sixties doesn't just go around killing men, unless she's insane, or some kind of witch.
YAGA is loosely inspired by Baba Yaga, a figure in Slavic folklore usually described as a hideous old hag who lives in the forest in a hut standing on chicken legs. YAGA is not a direct adaptation of the folk tales by any means, but it is not a deconstruction, either; although it is woke, as it were, to the unfair shake women - and especially single women - tend to get in folk stories and fairy tales, at the end of the day, YAGA is as much a celebration of witchy women as it is a condemnation of those who would burn them.
A perfect first act sets up the mystery: what happened to Henry Callas? If someone killed him, who? There don't seem to be any answers, only confusion and frustration from his classmates and fellow townsfolk. The investigation seems to be going nowhere, but a sense of mystery and a healthy dosing of humour keep us engaged. Joanna Yu's spare and simple set conjures emptiness, a thousand miles of nothing in every direction. The small town vibe, with its quirks and secrets, drops hints of Twin Peaks, while the lingering presence of Baba Yaga - why does everyone keep bringing her up? - suggests the supernatural. This is thrilling theatre, clever and compelling, that leaves you at the end of act one buzzing with your own theories.
But the second act largely undoes the first: Maybe the question is not what happened to Henry, but why someone felt the need to do something about him. People talk, information pours out. The dim, dark path is illuminated all at once, and answers flood in. They come so fast they contradict each other; there's a twist here, another revelation, another twist there. She's good! She's bad! She's good! He's bad? The pace doubles, triples, the action intensifies. Tight-lipped characters suddenly explain their motives. Truths established early in the play are upended, making the time spent watching it feel kind of cheapened. What's the point of creating such brilliant and exciting characters if they end up, pardon the near-spoiler, being someone completely different?
Still, despite its frustrating finale, YAGA is an extraordinary show. It is funnier than anything on at Just for Laughs; cleverer than most theatre on now by a mile, too. The mystery at the heart of the play is compelling, and its macabre promises make it perfect for the Halloween season. Claire Armstrong, Will Greenblatt and Seana McKenna are all in fine form; McKenna especially is striking, indomitable. Kat Sandler has created a piece of theatre that entertains, informs, instructs, and thrills.
TARRAGON THEATRE'S YAGA runs through OCTOBER 20
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit tarragontheatre.com
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann