Playwright/director Kat Sandler’s Yaga opens with Seana McKenna in the role of Baba Yaga, the fearsome supernatural figure of Slavic folklore. In a Bela Lugosi accent, McKenna dispatches a direct-address monologue that conjures images of fang-laden vaginas and vegetables seasoned with the bone dust of her victims. Her delivery is playful, precise, provocative and captivating – exalting in female horniness and predation. I could watch her do this all night.
But there’s a larger story to relay in Yaga, and while it’s infused with the same taunting, bawdy spirit as Baba Yaga’s spiel, it gradually proves itself to be a conventional detective yarn bearing the hoary old advisory to beware the dreaded femme fatale.
The refreshing thing about Yaga’s femme fatale, however, is her age. We seldom see sexually active women over 40 onstage, and in her primary role as Catherine, a 60-year-old doctor of osteology and zoology teaching in a small university town, McKenna – who, along with her fellow cast-members, takes on several roles throughout the play – is intimidating and utterly seductive.
A private eye (Will Greenblatt) joins forces with a police detective (Claire Armstrong) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a podcaster and scion to a yogurt dynasty – and Catherine is among their persons of interest. Yaga boasts many scenes of pithy ping-pong dialogue, and those between Catherine and the P.I. are meant to generate tension by leaving it uncertain which character has the upper hand. Though you can certainly make a guess: while he’s referred to by the other characters as affable and attractive, the P.I. is overconfident, obnoxious and a mansplainer ripe for comeuppance.
Propelled by taut pacing and an array of supporting characters distinctly embodied by McKenna and Armstrong, Yaga’s first act flies by. The second act, meanwhile, in its effort to resolve a busy plot, gets bogged down in explication while building up to an obligatory big twist and a climax that finally reveals the purpose of set designer Joanna Yu’s use of rustic furnishings, a floor of broad planks and floor-to-ceiling birch trees.
Yaga is entertaining, fleet and frequently clever. But its characters don’t develop far past their archetypes, and its premise makes one long for a richer exploration of what it means to be the empowered older woman that patriarchal habit has taught us to fear.