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The formula for what Kat Sandler‘s play, simply titled Yaga, is about may well be like an episode of Twin Peaks for some attendees, but for myself, I’m thinking Murder, She Wrote. But instead of solving mysteries from the perspective of a best-selling author, the point of view is from an omniscient presence needing more than the usual sustenance. Baba Yaga is an infamous Slavic witch known to eat children, but these days, she’s not picky.
Ever since this show’s debut in 2019, various theatre houses have put this play on across Canada. To kickstart Victoria, BC’s The Belfry 2023/24 season and get attendees ready for Halloween, it seems the director Jani Lauzon added an indigenous touch on top. We’re in a birch house to listen to the very beginnings of life. It’s told by a woman shaman (Tracey Nepinak) in a set that I believe was designed to resemble a traditional First Nation longhouse.
She opens the show with a wonderful creation myth, and when the real story unfolds, there are times she lurks in the background as a omniscient presence. Nepinak is great at casting that shadow, and the other two leads sort of play Mulder and Scully (the X-Files) archetypes to investigate the disappearance of Henry Kalles.
Technically, Charlie Rapp (Nicholas Nahwegahbow) isn’t meant to be like the FBI agent, but he is a cop sent to the small town of Whittock. But Carson (Anastasiia Ziurkalova) is local enforcement. She wants to go by the books. Plus, the costuming is dead on! To add to the mystery, each performer has to play at least two characters, and I suspect this approach is intentional; it hints at all the parallel stories going on. In some ways, the past foreshadows the future.
At first, we meet a rather geeky Kalles (also played by Nahwegahbow), a university student with an interest in the occult, meeting with his professor (Nepinak) who’s an osteologist. While this young adult wants to be a budding George Noory from Coast to Coast AM, what he does is to go into the field! His obsession to figure out female serial killers, of which he believes Baba Yaga was one, sets him on a course to disaster. Pretty soon, what he discovers deep in the woods where a lonely cabin lies hints he’s met the end of a shotgun barrel. However, his fate is much worse!
But for the others who come into play, little does everyone know that people in this small-town have secrets to hide. Katherine Yazov (Nepinak) is the most eccentric as the professor, and most lovable as Elena Yazov, the ailing grandmother.
While this modern interpretation of the Baba Yaga legend extends beyond what I’m familiar with, the added elements suggest she’s not just your average witch. The story and presentation leans heavy on the style that some people may recognize from the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. As for recounting the lore that’s attached to the Slavic character, the additions made me curious if the nature of the beast coming and going into mortal’s lives is cyclic. There’s also another tale concerning the use of a horn to escape from the witch’s clutches, and I was mildly disappointed there wasn’t a real prop to show to audiences which animal it comes from.
Otherwise, this murder mystery cum thriller is excellent. There were moments where the dialogue sounded muffled, but thankfully this theatre allows patrons to read the script afterwards. I did that to pick up on those moments I missed. When all the converstions carry the plot, it’s easy to miss a bit should one not pay attention. The world is a lot more alive after the intermission and I was waiting in bated breath to find out who is next on the menu for Yaga to consume, if at all. True to form, what’s presented preserves the legend. She’s no witch who can be hanged, and just how he persists in modern times is sweetly presented here.
4½ Stars out of 5
Want to know more about Baba Yaga?
Check out PBS Monstrum for a great recap!