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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Stellar Writing And Terrific Performances Give Tarragon Theatre A Giant Hit With ‘Yaga’

By Paula Citron on September 26, 2019

In her latest play, Yaga, Kat Sandler takes on the most famous and scary of Slavic folktale characters, and, in the process, has given Tarragon another giant hit.

Will Greenblatt, Seana McKenna and Claire Armstrong in Yaga
Will Greenblatt, Seana McKenna and Claire Armstrong are ‘simply superb’ in Yaga (Photo : Cylla von Tiedemann)

Tarragon Theatre/Yaga, written and directed by Kat Sandler, Tarragon Mainspace, Sept. 17 to Oct. 20. Tickets available at tarragontheatre.com.

Playwright/director Kat Sandler loves the macabre. She is also blessed with a bizarre imagination. A case in point is Sandler’s Mustard, which won the best play Dora in 2016. That inventive plot revolved around an imaginary friend who had stuck around into his host’s teenage years, and had to be rounded up by force. In her latest play, Yaga, Sandler takes on the most famous and scary of Slavic folktale characters, and, in the process, has given Tarragon another giant hit.

In a Sandler play, you laugh yourself silly at her snappy dialogue and wicked repartee. Her fast and furious pacing sweeps the audience up in a whirlwind of fascinating characters that leaves you breathless amid all the twists, turns and traumas of their lives. But don’t ever think that Sandler is all fun and games, because underneath the hilarity is a subtext filled with troubling questions and serious themes.

There are three parallel plotlines going on in Yaga that crisscross each other. In the first, replete with Russian accent, a sardonic Baba Yaga (the great Seana McKenna) talks about the myths that have grown up around her, in particular, and the treatment of witches through the ages in general. The second looks at a joint task force, so to speak, between Carson, a police detective (Claire Armstrong) and Rapp, a private detective (Will Greenblatt) as they search for Henry, a missing college student. The third follows the missing Henry (also Greenblatt) during the days leading up to his disappearance. McKenna and Armstrong perform a parade of female characters who intersect with Henry’s life, as well as figuring in the criminal investigation.

Seana McKenna in Yaga
Seana McKenna in Yaga (Photo : Cylla von Tiedemann)

And one more teaser about Sandler’s story focus. Henry is obsessed about searching out the real people behind mythological killers, like Dracula being based on Vlad the Impaler. In this case, he thinks he has found a record of a thirteenth century witch who could be the source of the Baba Yaga stories. To reveal anything more would be a giant spoiler.

Suffice it to say, that the dizzying switch between characters and scenes is another of the joys of this Sandler production. Her direction is brilliant as one character morphs into another as scenes change with seamless fluidity. That only three people are performing a cast of eleven, if my count is correct, is a mark of the acting acumen of McKenna, Armstrong and Greenblatt. Adding a hat here, an apron there, a jacket here, a handbag there, makes for instant character transformation, all the while the actors are positioning set pieces to indicate change of location — and without ever losing so much of a beat in the rapid fire pacing of movement and dialogue. The performances of McKenna, Armstrong and Greenblatt are simply superb.

Will Greenblatt and Seana McKenna in Yaga
Will Greenblatt and Seana McKenna in Yaga (Photo : Cylla von Tiedemann)

The production values of Yaga are also first rate. A Chekhov play could happily be performed on Joanna Yu’s clever set of Russian birches and a plank wooden floor. She is also responsible for the costume changes, which are such an essential ingredient to the plot. Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design supplies the menacing electronic drone as befits the plays dark underbelly, while Jennifer Lennon’s moody lighting bathes the stage in shadowy gloom.

I do have one complaint however. Yaga is one scene too long. It is an unnecessary denouement. Sandler should have ended with the penultimate scene that has one of the best last lines ever.

Getting back to more serious subjects, the main thrust of Sandler’s mix of folktale and reality is how strong, mature and independent women are looked upon in society. In past times, they were burned at the stake, drowned or hanged. Today, in some circles, they are viewed with suspicion and distrust, a metaphorical burning, as it were. Sandler has set her story in a small town where everyone knows each other — clearly not the best place to walk your own pathway amid judgmental neighbours.

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Paula Citron
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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
Follow me
Paula Citron
Follow me

Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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