Kira Obolensky's "Vasa Lisa" opens with a group of Russian villagers gathered together drinking and telling stories. When they suddenly set their mugs upside down on a small table, the ornately designed bottoms form a tiny facsimile of a village, complete with miniature minaret dome. It's a small but telling moment in this Ten Thousand Things production, alerting the audience that nothing is exactly what it seems in this folktale.
Obolensky has created "Vasa Lisa" out of several tales, so many of its elements are familiar. The poor, but good-hearted title character lives a simple life in a Russian village, until her mother dies and her father remarries -- badly, of course. An evil stepmother and a thoroughly nasty stepsister make Vasa Lisa's life a living hell, finally driving her to seek refuge in the forest, the realm of the dreaded witch Baba Yaga. After trials, tribulations and a few unexpected twists, Vasa Lisa emerges triumphant.
The charm of this production is not so much in the story it tells as in the way it is told. Tracey Maloney's Vasa Lisa seems a wide-eyed waif at first, but as the play progresses she develops into a steely protagonist more than capable of taking on the villains who surround her. And what a crew of villains they are. Jim Lichtscheidl creates the ultimate evil stepmother, coyly prancing and posturing in red heels and a fright wig. Elise Langer offers an impressively elastic series of facial expressions as the stepsister. Luverne Seifert ranges from comically crass as Vasa Lisa's parent to creepily sinister as the predatory Sir Van Franzen, The Terrible. Scuttling like a spider across the stage, Sally Wingert conjures a Baba Yaga who's every child's worst nightmare of a witch.
Under Michelle Hensley's direction, the production is beautifully textured. Sonya Berlovitz' eclectic costume design, including a strikingly grotesque manifestation of Baba Yaga, and Irve Dell's use of spare set pieces immediately communicate the dreamlike quality of a magical world, while Peter Vitale's musical composition evokes its Russian roots.
Indeed, the careful detail and pacing of this production, as well as its fine acting go a long way toward masking the fact that Obolensky's script tends toward the didactic in too many instances. The exploration of folklore from a modern perspective offers opportunities for insights, but here the choices sometimes seem too obvious.
This is a quibble, however, in the face of such a luminous and ingenious production. Ten Thousand Things' "Vasa Lisa" reminds audiences why folktales continue to hold such a grip on the human imagination.