Review: Baba Yaga

Windmill Theatre Co. spins a Russian folk tale into a technicolour motivational speech in Baba Yaga.

State Theatre Company regular Elizabeth Hay plays Vaselina, the receptionist in a rule-heavy, library-quiet apartment complex. Rendered mute by its shushing, uptight residents, Vaselina spends her days being buffeted by their demands in a grey parka as dull as her trodden dreams.

Enter Baba Yaga (Christine Johnston), an all-singing, all-dancing, possibly flesh-eating Cruella de Vil in Muppet-pelts who lives in the penthouse. Coaxed up to the 101st floor to address the noise and animal complaints of Yaga’s neighbours, Vaselina is eventually teased out of her shell through song, dance and space travel.

It’s a predictable arc of self-discovery pitched at a younger audience who one hopes has yet to be crushed by a grey, demanding world, but like the extended silent gags that open the piece, much of the joy is in watching it all knowingly unfold. Best known for her work in The Kransky Sisters, the titular role was made for Johnston and her deep, eclectic skill set (literally – she co-created the work along with director Rosemary Myers and Scottish artist Shona Reppe, who originated the Vaselina role in its original Edinburgh run). Who else can act, yodel, saw and play Ralph Wiggum-inspired woodwind?

Christine Johnson as Baba Yaga (Photo: Sia Duff)
Christine Johnston as Baba Yaga (Photo: Sia Duff)

Like many recent Windmill productions the simple, tour-ready staging is brought to life through colourful projections led by increasingly in-demand animator Chris Edser. But sometimes simplicity as just as effective, with the script wringing more laughs and symbolism out of a Russian nesting doll than any high-tech set piece.

Special mention must also go to artist Fleur Elise Noble’s transformation of the Queen’s Theatre space; audience members are greeted upon entry by an enormous, cardboard pop-up rainforest populated by projected cassowaries and leopards. It left this grown man feeling like he was back in the Myer Centre’s Lost Forest store circa 1995.

But the heart of the production is Hay, a delightful comic force whose portrayal of Vaselina’s tightly-wound repression, and inevitable release, is incredibly entertaining. Her double act rapport with Johnston is enough to make anyone wish for their own f̶a̶i̶r̶y̶ scary godmother.

Baba Yaga was performed at Queen’s Theatre on Wednesday, February 28

Baba Yaga
February 27 – March 3, March 5-6

Queen’s Theatre
adelaidefestival.com.au

Header image:
Sia Duff / Windmill Theatre

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.