The fairytale world in The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls — the play currently at the Undermain Theater — is actually modern Moscow. It’s a city of hard, bearish businessmen and cynical, sexy young women who survive any way they can. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says, this may be the New Russia, but it’s still haunted by Old Russia – in the figure of the legendary witch, Baba Yaga.
Gail Cronauer clearly enjoys rolling out the Russian accent she employs as Baba Yaga. She hits those crisp consonants and sibilants hard, puts a lip curl into every bitter reference to young women and extends the word “bones” into one long, echo-y boooo: “Baba Yaga did not want to be disturbed. So no one may ever sneak up on Baba Yaga — especially little girls — she surrounded the hut with a fence made of bones. There is one empty bone post, in case a pretty little skull should happen her way.”
In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga lives in a forest hut equipped with giant chicken legs, the better to chase down little children to cook and eat. With The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, playwright Meg Miroshnik lets Baba Yaga loose on Russia today. The dark comedy is about how Annie, a naïve American woman (Katherine Bourne, who’s probably tired of hearing she makes an appealing Emma Stone), figures out what’s up in Moscow from several lovely but hard, young Muscovites. In killer high heels and tight skirts, they offer Old World materialism and fatalism: Life is about sex, money, handbags, vodka, splashy nightclubs, knowing when not to care and how to find and keep a rich businessman with a good apartment. In the face of their punishing lives — boyfriends turn into bears, potatoes can attack you — Annie must inspire them with some sisterhood-is-powerful thinking. It’s the only way they might defeat Baba Yaga, the hunched crone with the iron teeth, a ferocious hunger and a very large oven.
Actually, it may not matter much whether the young women succeed. At the Undermain, it’s Gail Cronauer’s witch who walks away with director Dylan Key’s show.
“That’s so sweet to say that,” Cronauer says with a laugh. “I’m an actress of a certain age. I look at some of the photographs [of the Undermain show], and I go, ‘Oh my God, they all look so great — except that woman in the babushka!’”
Born in Dallas, Cronauer earned her master’s in theater from Case Western Reserve. She came back to Dallas in 1978 to teach at SMU — and joined the early ’80s boom in North Texas theater with one of the area’s truly adventuresome theaters, Stage Number One. (Fittingly, Cronauer’s son, choreographer Adam Hougland, is currently an artist-in-residence at SMU.)
Katherine Owens, the Undermain’s artistic director, sees Cronauer, now in her 60s, as one of our master artists. She notes Cronauer has helped train a generation of North Texas actors, first at SMU and now at Collin College.
“Everybody knows her and respects her,” says Owens. “And you can see the other thing about working with Gail – she brings such complete and utter professionalism, everyone says, ‘Well, that’s setting the standard.’”
Casting Cronauer as Baba Yaga seems a no-brainer. Even in college, she says, she played older characters. They were the juicy roles. And then there’s her face: “Not that it looks really old, but it’s certainly bony and angular and leant itself to that. When I got out of grad school, it was like I didn’t know how to do anything but play somebody’s who’s really old.”
That’s had its advantages. In films and TV, Cronauer has been a classic character actor, appearing in everything from Oliver Stone’s JFK to Walker Texas Ranger, Dallas, the TV series, and the Hilary Swank film, Boys Don’t Cry. She’s also worked at just about every professional theater in the area, including the Dallas Theater Center (below, in Dividing the Estate). For Lyric Stage, she portrayed Maria Callas in Master Class — and earned notice from the DFW Theater Critics Forum for her performance.
But with Baba Yaga, Cronauer plays more than just your standard Grimm witch. Her character is both maternal and monstrous, creepy and funny. She has a good reason for hating little girls. Baba Yaga ages a whole year any time she’s asked a question. And all curious little girls do is ask questions: Why do you look so old, Baba Yaga? Why do you have such bony legs? Why are you so mean? Why do you hate me, Baba Yaga?
“This is why she feels three hundred and three. And she does not like it one bit.”
Cronauer says she used to think if she could stick it out here, she’d just outlast her acting competition. But lately, it’s been friends and family whom she’s lost. Three years ago, her husband, Mark Hougland, died — after a long decline from Huntington’s disease. That fall, it was her mother. The next year, her father.
As Baba Yaga might say, growing older is not for the weak.
“It makes you aware of the fact that life isn’t forever,” Cronauer says. “And maybe it’s one of the things that has made me value what I’m able to do in theater so much. We all have these wonderful moments [in Fairytale Lives] when we go downstage and directly address the audience, and that’s like being out on the edge of a cliff. You are out there, trusting in the spirit of live theater. And it’s exhilarating and terrifying.
“Which I think theater at its best is.”
This is theater as a kind of fairytale magic. It can make an actor feel more fully alive.