A sharp travel-horror play by LA-based writer Meg Miroshnik, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls follows a young American woman of Russian extraction (Annie, played by a sprightly and doe-eyed Samie Spring Detzer) who travels to Moscow and gets tangled in a world somewhere between Russian fairytales and the sex, drugs, and clubs of contemporary young Muscovites.
Annie's host mother is a witch, the woman across the hallway has a drunk bear for a boyfriend, and Annie's fairy godmother turns out to be an arch prostitute (Nastya, played with deep, sinister grace by Leah Pfenning) who the other young women in the play agree is "one tough cunt." Nastya is the one with access to rich men, axes, and the other implements of destruction that bring Russian Girls to its delightfully dark conclusion. (Things end happily ever after, but a few men and monsters have to die first.)
This production at Washington Ensemble Theater, directed by Ali el-Gasseir, mixes well-grounded performances, shadow puppetry, and lo-fi theater tricks (footlights to make everyone's faces look noir-ish, for example) to create an atmosphere of gloomy paranoia, punctuated with unexpected comedy. The production doesn't have all of the fireworks and special effects that the script allows for—Russian Girls would make a hell of a Guillermo del Toro movie—but it tells this jagged and suspenseful story about women in a darkly magical version of Moscow with energy and ballast.