The witch Baba Yaga is one of the oldest legends in the world, appearing in thousands of folk tales, mostly from Central Europe, along with her house built on chicken legs. Both feature prominently (as you might guess from the title) in Imposters Theatre’s first post-pandemic production, The House of Baba Yaga. The action takes place entirely in the aforementioned dwelling, an ancient and mysterious house full of spirits and dark intents, yet the play is more comedy than horror or thriller. Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty of danger to the four female teenage protagonists who find themselves in the house—and even deaths—but you will undoubtedly laugh rather than quiver with fear at the script by ensemble member Emma Smart.
Director Stefan Roseen makes excellent use of the City Lit space on Bryn Mawr, with an Elyse Estes-designed set that features skewed, bizarrely angled windows and walls as well as a thoroughly rustic feel. (Apparently, with the exception of electricity, the house hasn’t changed a lot since the time when Circe, the original Baba Yaga according to this version of the myth, welcomed Odysseus. One almost expects a drove of man-sized pigs to come out of the closet.) The current incarnation of the ancient witch is played with gusto by Emily Gulbrandsen, whose sudden appearances from just about anywhere are designed to throw the girls into confusion. Gulbrandsen has a grand time with the part; since it cannot be overacted, she feels free to go as far over the top as she can, and the result is an unsettling character whose true agenda is not made clear until late in the 95-minute show.
From the outset, though, it is clear that the four girls are not in for the night that they had planned. Baba Yaga tells them never to believe “anything a man may tell you,” but she should have included “or a witch” in the warning. The girls arrive at the house in the woods following their friend Piper (Alexandra M. Hunter), who recently stumbled upon the place while having a tryst with a classmate. They are all specific types: the outspoken, bold Ursula (Anna Sciaccotta); the frightened nerd Willow (Jaclyn Jensen); the quiet, reserved Fred (Asya Meadows), and the hyper-popular and beautiful Piper. Roseen clearly encourages these stereotypes, and his actors lean all the way into them.
The house is also home to four former Baba Yagas who remain there as “spirits of the house,” creepily appearing when the current witch needs them in order to assist her in her goals. (Movement coach Stephanie Lewis has done a great job with their haunted movements.) They all thrust the four trespassing teens into a three-part contest, the prize for the winner(s) being…walking away with their lives. The clever but somewhat schizophrenic script—which does contain one excellent jump-scare—takes this horrific “game” and mostly plays it for laughs even as it overtly threatens the girls’ lives. But that’s OK: it doesn’t all actually have to make a whole lot of sense. As Baba Yaga says, “This is magic, not rocket science.”
While a lot of this works very well and is quite entertaining, there are inconsistencies. A pile of televisions, designed to enhance the mood and add some symbolism to the story, mostly goes wasted and seems like overkill anyway. Smart’s dialogue, which can be fun, gets a bit talky at times, especially while Baba Yaga is monologuing about the history of the house and her line. Occasionally, Smart overindulges her cleverness, as when one of the girls, recounting her father’s ineffectual life, explains that her stepmom walked all over him and how she wished the woman “would release his balls from the icy cold grip she has them in.” (If Baba Yaga said that, it might be understandable, but what teenage girl would create such a metaphor…or even think about her father’s genitals at all?) Still, most of the script does work well, and Dominick Vincent Alesia’s music helps us gloss over the rest.
If I have one bone to pick—and I do—it has to do with one of the four teens. Let me quickly say that this entire ensemble does a wonderful job. These four protagonists all do everything within their power to create convincing (even though stereotyped) and realistic teenagers. And none of them is asked to do more than Hunter as Piper (though one harrowing monologue by Meadows comes close). But Hunter’s performance, though excellent, is as schizophrenic as the script. Clearly directed to do so, she basically avoids any kind of realistic characterization, replacing it with bizarre mini-caricatures that definitely do not suggest someone who is locked in a battle for her life. I am uncomfortable calling this out because, as I said, everything she does is excellent, but this central choice makes Piper—a central character here—seem as if she is often in some other play, perhaps a farcical version of what we are seeing. It is partly farcical—at one point Baba Yaga actually puts a character on trial to see if she wants to become a witch (“Oh, yes, witches love irony”)—but it is all over-layered with people dying. I’m sure that everything Hunter does has been carefully crafted in collaboration with Roseen, but it often just seemed at odds with what is happening around her.
None of this stops The House of Baba Yaga from being a play I can easily recommend, though. The parts don’t always fit together perfectly, and you sort of wish that Imposters had opened it before Halloween, but a visit to this creepy house will definitely entertain you.
The House of Baba Yaga is playing now through November 20. Tickets are available here.