(or, ‘what i talk about when i talk about annie baker’)
(This post contains minor spoilers for Annie Baker’s The Antipodes.)
I’ve been on a bit of an Annie Baker kick ever since I first missed the National Theatre production of John and regretted it for the rest of my life. I devoured the script in one sitting and was instantly hooked on Baker’s characters and worlds, as well as her handling of the peculiar. When I finished John, I borrowed my boyfriend’s copy of The Flick (which I also loved), then paid way too much money in the NT Bookshop for a collection of four plays, making my way through Circle, Mirror, Transformation (READ IT) and The Aliens so far.
But it was The Antipodes that latched onto me more than any of the others, sticking fast as a limpet to a rockpool. I’ve always been fascinated by theatre that combines the mundane, hyper-naturalist, and clumsy, with the magical, unsettling, and (again) peculiar. The Antipodes does this masterfully; as usual in Baker’s plays, the characters interrupt each other, trip over their words, never quite speak perfectly just as in real speech, but the anecdotes they tell are beamed in from another realm entirely.
The play revolves around a group of creatives trying to come up with a new idea for an unknown project – we have no idea if it’s for the next trendy Netflix binge-watch, a video game, a new religion, or political ideology. The characters have been hired by Sandy – the king of geek-machismo – who sits at the end of the table and asks leading questions (“How did you lose your virginity?” “What’s your biggest regret?” etc.) to hopefully open up inspiring anecdotes from his team. The play muses over the limitations of storytelling and the futility of telling stories in a chaotic and frightening world. It eventually descends into the surreal, as the characters soon find themselves running out of ideas and time.
I adored the script when I read it a few months ago and the recent NT production captures it so gorgeously that I would literally beg everybody to go see it if you haven’t already booked tickets. (We had a ‘restricted view’ seat that ended up being a great view, so don’t be put off seeing it because of the slightly mad ticket prices..!)
So yes, I loved the production (a lot). But the reason I’m spending my evening writing this is because I am craving an outlet to talk about one specific moment of the play that grabbed me the most. It’s a moment that, judging by the reviews I’ve read, has Pritt-Sticked itself in the mind of many who’ve seen (or read) it.
About a third of the way through the play, Sandy asks Sarah – the attractive, ditzy assistant of cliché – to tell a story from her childhood. So, after some pushing, she recounts the story of the loss of her mum and how she was forced to live with an evil stepmother, who sent her to a witch’s house down the road where she had to complete impossible tasks in return for a pinch of rosemary.
The story is full of folktale tropes that anybody will recognise. I’ve seen multiple reviews describe Sarah’s story as “Grimm-like”, due to its parallels to the tales that those Brothers collected from around the Black Forest like cherries for chocolate gateaux. But when reading the script, I realised straight away that Sarah was recounting the story of one of my favourite folktales: Vasilisa the Beautiful. It is a Russian story first collected by Alexander Afanasyev in 1855 (who also collected The Twelve Dancing Princesses, another fave) and is – to my understanding anyway – somewhat of a staple fairy tale in Russian homes. Vasilisa is a folk hero in the same way the Jack the Giant Killer is to England and Pinocchio is to Italy. However, her story is mostly known for being one of the most prominent to feature the most famous character in all Russian folklore: the bony-legged witch Baba Yaga, who flies around the Russian wilderness in her giant pestle and mortar and lives in a house that stands on chicken legs. Baba Yaga is a fickle character. She is not entirely good, and she is not completely evil. Sometimes she is three women – youthful, middle-aged, and elderly – and sometimes she is just one. She is the very definition of the peculiar. And the story is one of my favourites! Not least because back when I was a bookseller, I spent three entire days creating a cardboard recreation of Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged house for a window display to promote Sophie Anderson’s The House with Chicken Legs.
When reading The Antipodes, therefore, and being very familiar with the story of my fave Russian gals Vasilisa and Baba Yaga, I wondered why Baker had chosen this story in particular to retell, and why she gave it to Sarah to deliver in the play. (It should also be noted that this story is the only time Sarah gets to tell a story to the group. It defines her presence for the rest of the play.)
So as an experiment, and because I’m very extra, I’ve done my own rewriting of the story of Vasilisa. It’s 3000-words long but should hopefully be fun, even if you’re already familiar with the story. The joy of retelling these stories is taking your own liberties with it, which I’ve definitely done in spades. So please enjoy…
- The Peculiar Tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful -
A long time ago, when witches still lived in Russia, there was a woman and a man who were married. She made toys in her workshop and he travelled around the country selling them from a painted cart. After a number of years, the woman fell pregnant with their first child – a girl who they named Vasilisa, which means ‘queen’.
When the girl was old enough to poke a thread through a needle, she began helping her mother in their small workshop. Vasilisa stitched buttons onto the dolls’ jackets, while her mother filled the casings with sawdust and cotton. They were beautiful things.
People from nearby villages soon heard about the family’s toys and came to buy them. Then nobles came. Then the tsarina herself sent for five dolls, one for each of her four daughters and one for her only son. The family soon set up a permanent toy shop in the village, living comfortably and were happy.
But soon, a deadly plague came to the village and people did not want to buy the family’s dolls, fearing they carried infection. But when Vasilisa’s mother fell ill too and they could not afford the medicine, her father took their painted cart and set off through the forest to sell the last of their wares. While the sickness in the rest of the village took its toll, the girl stayed healthy since her mother had locked herself up in the workshop, distracting herself with a new project.
Weeks went by without word from Vasilisa’s father and she could hear her mother’s footsteps growing more laboured and less heavy through the ceiling. All the girl could do was wonder what her mother could be making because she was never allowed in the workshop. Then one day, she was called upstairs.
When she walked in, she noticed that the floor of the workshop was covered in sawdust, as if Vasilisa’s mother had been working so intensely she had not even had time to sweep it. The girl’s mother was slumped onto her desk and she was clutching onto something.
“My beautiful child,” she said in a weak voice, “you have watched our friends in the village pass away one by one. I fear it may be my time to go.”
Vasilisa only responded, through tears, after a few moments. “Father is not yet back,” she said. “You must wait for him.”
“Take this as my blessing,” was all her mother replied. And she passed her daughter a beautifully carved small, wooden doll with a painted smile. “Keep this with you always, but never show it to another soul. If ever you need comfort or assistance, give it something to eat and something to drink.”
Then she held her daughter close until she was gone.
When she realised that her mother had passed away, Vasilisa shakily fed the wooden doll a crust of bread and a small thimble filled with milk. It came to life and held her as she cried, with all the warmth her mother had possessed.
The girl lived by herself in the house, living off the food the family had left in the cupboard, until the plague finally passed. Her father never returned, so the girl wrote to his sister, whom she had never met, to ask for room and board. The aunt obliged, but on the condition the girl work as their maid to earn her keep.
So Vasilisa caught the next train to the city where the aunt lived: a smoky, modern place with tall buildings and strange fashions. When she arrived at the house, she hid the doll under a floorboard and showed it to nobody, as she had been told.
The aunt had two daughters of her own and the three of them treated the girl cruelly. Every day, Vasilisa would wash their clothes, clean the entire house from top to bottom and prepare all the family’s meals, of which she was only allowed the burnt scraps. Her bed was in a small chilly cupboard, which she shared with three rats that left droppings on her pillow. Soon, the family jokingly nicknamed her ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’, because she was always covered in dirt, her hair was matted and unkempt, and her clothes were torn and ragged. Every night, Vasilisa would curl up in her cupboard and give the little food she had left to her wooden doll, which would come to life and comfort her. Thoughts of escape often crossed her mind, but Vasilisa was fearful of the world, because it had taken away her mother and father, and she decided that staying put was the better option.
One day, after many years of living under the foot of her aunt, there was a great rain storm. The river running through the centre of the city broke its banks and flooded the local power plant, extinguishing its coal fires and leaving the city without electricity or heat.
Now, Vasilisa’s aunt and her daughters were used to a certain level of comfort, so when they found that the lights weren’t working and their phones wouldn’t charge and their bedrooms were cold, they ordered Vasilisa to solve the problem for them.
“But I don’t know the first thing about coal power!” the girl protested.
“Then go into the woods and fetch some light from the witch Baba Yaga,” snarled the aunt.
“She’ll have hoarded tons of it, greedy bitch” said one daughter.
“How do you know?”
“Because she’s a witch,” said the other. “That’s what they do.”
But instead of leaving straight away, Vasilisa went first to her doll. She fed it a dried-up pea she found on the floor from yesterday’s dinner and dunked its head under the tap for a few seconds in case it was thirsty. Its smile came to life at once. “My aunt and cousins want me to go find light from the witch Baba Yaga,” she said.
“And?” said the doll.
“And I don’t really want to,” said Vasilisa. “I want to leave this place. I don’t like witches.”
“Don’t be afraid, Vasilisa,” The doll said. “Go to the witch Baba Yaga and ask her for light. But make sure you bring me with you.”
So, after stuffing the doll into her satchel, off Vasilisa went. Down the high street, past the flooded power plant and to the outskirts of the city where the roots of the wood poked through suburban fences and its brambles were green in the sunlight. Then, a deep breath, and into the wood she went to find the witch Baba Yaga.
She left her aunt’s house in late afternoon, and by the time she was a few miles into the woods it was already night-time. After a few more miles of stumbling through the darkness, she saw a well-lit clearing away in the distance, where a house stood, raised up high in the canopy by two, skinny yellow trees. The clearing was surrounded by a white picket fence and white flowers bloomed in the grass.
When she approached, however, she discovered that the house stood, not on trees, but on a pair of tall chicken legs. The picket fence was not picket but human bones. And the flowers in the garden were human skulls, thrown out of the window of the house above, whose window eyes glowed in the moonlight. Her cousins were right, the witch sure had hoarded a lot of light for herself.
“Is this the house of the witch Baba Yaga?” the girl asked the doll (after feeding it a cube of cheese from her backpack and giving it a sip from her flask.) “This is the house,” replied the wooden doll. “Go inside and get the light. Do not be afraid.”
So Vasilisa the Beautiful gathered her courage, shimmied her way up the ladder and knocked on the door of the house with chicken legs.
The door flew open as soon as her fist made a sound on it. The witch was old. Very old. The oldest thing Vasilisa had ever seen. Older than the trees. She had long, scraggly, white hair. She had yellow teeth. She had bonier legs than the chicken legs that held up her home.
“Hello,” the girl said, simply. “I’ve been asked to see you. My aunt has sent me to fetch some light, if you’re willing to give it.”
“Light?” croaked the witch Baba Yaga, as if she had not used her voice in a very long time.
“For my aunt.”
There was a pause. Like the pause a cat takes before grabbing its prey. Vasilisa kept an eye on the witch’s bony legs, looking for any sign of the muscles tensing into a pounce. Then the witch smiled a not-unkind grin. “You will have to work for it. Stay with me for three days. If you do good work, I will give you the light. If you do not, I will cook you and eat you and throw your skull into my garden.” Vasilisa’s throat went dry. She swallowed. “Is that clear, girl?” the witch said.
Then the witch pulled the door open wider. “Come in,” she said. And Vasilisa did.
Inside the cottage it was very warm and bright. Flames whispered on their wicks with candles on every surface. Neon signs advertising real whalebone corsets and the ‘Best Coffee In Yekaterinburg!’ hummed from each wall. A big window in the back of the house looked out over the top of the canopy, letting all the moonlight wash over the carpet. The witch was stockpiling all the light in the world.
“What is your name, girl?” said the witch.
“They call me Vasilisa the Beautiful,” replied the girl.
“Hm,” said the witch Baba Yaga, looking her dirty clothes up and down. “First of all,” she said, “you will cook my tea and clean my house and tuck me into bed.”
And Vasilisa did. And she did it very quickly because she did the same kind of work every day for her aunt. She made the witch a stew out of some old fingers she found at the back of the freezer and scrubbed the house from top to bottom. Then, when she was finished, she tucked the old witch into bed and kissed her on the forehead. The witch got all nice and snuggled up, then gave the girl her next task.
“There is a bag of corn in the pantry,” said the witch Baba Yaga, “you must separate the good corn from the mouldy corn so that I can have a hearty breakfast. You have until I wake up.”
And the witch smiled because the task was impossible. She secretly planned on having the girl for her breakfast instead and went straight to sleep, dreaming of Eyeball Benedict.
When the witch was snoring, Vasilisa went into the cupboard and lugged down the bag of corn, pouring its contents onto the floor. She almost cried out when she saw what was inside; there must have been thousands of grains to separate before morning. There was no way she could do it on her own. But then she remembered how her mother’s doll had helped her so far. She grabbed a kernel of the good, yellow corn and fed it to the doll, along with a sip of Ovaltine from the witch’s nearly empty mug.
The doll sprang to life and Vasilisa told it what was happening at once. “Don’t be afraid Vasilisa,” it said. “Go to sleep at once. Morning is wiser than evening.”
“But the witch Baba Yaga said I must complete the task before she wakes up!”
But the doll just shook its little head. “Go to sleep. Morning is wiser than evening,” it said again. So Vasilisa gathered up a bundle of cushions and curled up in the corner to sleep.
When morning came, Vasilisa opened her eyes to find her doll sitting atop the bag, now full of only the good corn. She kissed and kissed the doll, thanking it for saving her life.
Soon, the witch Baba Yaga stumbled into the kitchen on her bony legs, yawning, licking her lips, ready to mix Vasilisa’s blood into her overnight oats. But she stopped in her tracks when she saw the full bag. “Grandmother,” said Vasilisa. “I have separated the good corn from the bad.”
The witch stared at the girl, then at the bag, then at the girl, and huffed audibly. She picked up the bag, opened her mouth wide, and tipped its entire contents into her gob. She chewed with her mouth open and burped loudly when she was done.
“I am going out for some errands,” the witch said, picking up a small tin from a shelf. “When I come back this afternoon, I want you to have separated the poppy seeds from the dust.” She opened the tin with her sharp teeth and tipped it upside down, pouring little black seeds all over the floor of the room. “If I see one poppy seed,” the witch said, “I will spread your fat on sultana scones for my afternoon tea.” And the witch smiled because the task was impossible. Then she hopped into her kitchen mortar and rode in it out of the house, using its pestle as both oar and rudder to propel her flight.
This time, Vasilisa did not despair. She fed a poppy seed to her doll and quenched its thirst with a glob of her own spit, for there was nothing left in the house to give it to drink. It came to life and she told it her latest task. “Go have a walk in the woods,” it said. “Afternoon is wiser than morning.” So Vasilisa clambered down the ladder and spent the morning climbing trees and munching on wild berries in the forest. When it reached noon, when the sun was at its highest point in the sky, she came back to the house and found the doll perched on a full can of poppy seeds.
Soon after, the witch returned with fresh sultana scones from the bakery, she was furious to find that Vasilisa had somehow managed to complete the task, and straight away gave her another one: “Polish the good corn that you separated from the bad corn until it shines.”
“But you ate all the good corn this morning, Grandmother!” Vasilisa replied in horror, for there was no way her doll would be able to complete this task. "Nevertheless, you must polish it,” said the witch through bared teeth, “by the time I finish my bath this evening.” And off she went into the bathroom, smiling because the task was impossible.
Now there was nothing in the house to give the doll to eat or drink, so Vasilisa bit off a piece of the skin around her fingernail to feed it to the doll. And to quench its thirst she pricked her palm with a pin and gave it some of her blood. The doll came to life and its grin was extra wide. Vasilisa told it her latest task through tears as she knew this task out of all of them was truly impossible. But the doll told her to sit on the sofa and watch a few episodes of The Real Housewives of Petrograd.
“But the witch Baba Yaga said the task had to be completed by this evening!” protested the girl.
“Just relax, evening is wiser than afternoon,” said the doll. So Vasilisa did.
And she must have fallen asleep in front of the telly because when she next opened her eyes, it was dark outside save for the bright moonlight and she saw her doll sat on top of a gleaming pile of polished corn. Vasilisa approached the corn and couldn’t see anything off with it. She gave the pile a sniff… It didn’t seem to smell like bile or digestive acid. In fact, it was shining in the candlelight just as the witch had asked for. The doll had somehow completed the task. Vasilisa scooped it up and hugged it tightly to her chest.
Soon, the girl heard the plug gurgling from the bathroom and the witch entered in an extravagant silk robe, white hair wrapped up in a towel, skin looking fresh after a avocado face mask. She looked at the girl and grinned hungrily.
“Time for my din-” She stopped mid-sentence. She had spotted the pile of corn. The witch looked down at her stomach and put her hand on it. It didn’t feel any emptier? She furrowed her brow. The house was silent for a long time save for the humming of the neon.
Then she growled. “How did you do it?” Vasilisa hesitated. Her mother had warned her to never tell anybody about the doll. So she thought the quickest she had ever thought. “I did it with the blessing of my mother.” (Which wasn’t technically a lie.) The witch Baba Yaga howled.
“I will not have blessings in this house!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “Get out! Get out!”
“But what about the light you promised? I was sent to fetch light for my aunt!”
The witch grabbed a skull with flaming eyes from the kitchen counter. “Take this! It will light a thousand houses. Just get out!” she screamed, beating at the girl with the wet towel she had tugged from the top of her head. “Bringing blessings into my home! How dare you?” Vasilisa took the skull from the witch. “Thank you, Grandmother!” she said and curtseyed to the witch, who screamed again at the lovely sight. Then, patting her pocket to check her mother’s doll was still in there, Vasilisa the Beautiful flew through the door, slid down the ladder and sprinted away through the forest, away from the house with chicken legs and the screams of the witch Baba Yaga.
The girl ran all the way back home because she had already been gone far too long and feared a beating from her aunt. But as she rounded the corner of her street, she looked down at the light she had been given. Her aunt would never accept this skull with flaming eyes – it didn’t go with the décor of the house at all. She would get an even worse beating than if she had rocked up empty handed. So, cursing her luck, she began to turn around to throw the skull back into the woods.
But just as she had made up her mind to get rid of the light, she heard a muffled voice from her pocket. The doll had somehow come to life, without needing a single crumb of food or drop of drink. “Do not get rid of the skull, Vasilisa,” it said.
“Why not? My aunt will hate it!”
“You must keep it. Your aunt and her daughters need it very badly.”
Vasilisa nearly hesitated, but her doll had only helped her so far. So she carried the skull back to her house and rang the doorbell. Her aunt answered. “Oh. It’s you.” She sounded disappointed.
One of her daughters joined her at the door. “Vasilisa the Beautiful! We were hoping you’d died!”
The other daughter joined. “Did you at least bring what we asked for?”
Vasilisa nodded. “I went to the witch Baba Yaga and brought you some light.” And she handed the skull with flaming eyes to her aunt, who stared at it.
“What is this ugly thing?” she laughed.
But before Vasilisa could reply, the flames in the skull’s eyes turned bright white, searing her aunt’s hands who dropped it onto the doorstep where the skull cracked open at their feet. Finally free of their container, the flames grew and grew and grew with the sound of the cruel trio’s screams until all that was left of Vasilisa’s family was a pile of ash, which the doll quickly hoovered up.
You may worry that Vasilisa would go to prison for the murder of her family, but her little wooden doll – having been permanently brought to life through feeding on the girl’s own flesh and blood before the girl’s final task – turned out to be quite a legal expert. The judge ruled that not only was Vasilisa innocent, but that her aunt’s estate was now rightfully hers, given that she was her last surviving relative. Vasilisa, who now realised that there were much more frightening things in the world than plague and evil aunts, sold the house to move back to her home village, investing the money back into her family toy business. It could now produce countless toys overnight with the wooden doll’s help and the toys began to sell very well again. Soon Vasilisa became a very successful businesswoman, shipping her toys to all of Russia.
One winter’s day several years later, there was a knock at Vasilisa’s door. She opened it to find an old, bearded man there, pulling a cart with a chipped paint-job.
“Father!” she cried, recognising him instantly and hugging him so tight he could hardly breathe.
Vasilisa’s father had been lost in the woods for many years after being driven delirious by the eventual news of his wife’s passing. He had only managed to find his way after being given directions by an old woman with bony legs, who told him his daughter was very skilled at polishing half-digested corn and had once made her the best finger stew she had ever eaten.
Vasilisa brought her father inside, where the doll helped start a warm fire in the hearth. It lit up the room with a light so brilliant that it would be impossible for them to ever lose each other again. And they never did.
· · ·
So there’s my little (not at all little) retelling of the story of Vasilisa! What started as a fun, silly writing challenge for myself actually became a very useful exercise in figuring out why other retellers have made the choices they did and what those mean.
There’s a strange challenge with retelling a fairy tale, so I thought I’d just compile a quick list of the changes I made in my version and the reasons why – if anyone cares at all. Idk this is so interesting to me but maybe nobody else cares. Feel free to skip this list if you’re not bothered.
First of all, I made Vasilisa and her family toymakers. This was partly to explain the importance of the doll, giving it a reason to exist, as well as to provide a more intrinsic connection to her mother through it. I also wanted to try and give the female characters in the story a bit more agency and oomph by giving them skills and talents.
I sent Vasilisa’s father away into the woods before her mother died, mostly as a bit of a reference to the original Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve Beauty and the Beast, where Beauty’s father is a merchant that gets lost on his travels. I also thought that having Vasilisa make the choice to put herself in a horrible situation with her aunt was more interesting than her just ending up there.
The anachronisms: this was mostly for fun – I always love a story that never quite sits in one place and time – but also helped convey both a sense of modern relatability and fairy tale magic that Baker does brilliantly, I expand this a bit below.
Making the stepmother an evil aunt: this was actually an intentional reference to Matilda! I wanted to play around a bit further with the idea of compiling all these familiar tropes into one, unfamiliar story.
Vasilisa’s epithet becomes a mocking one, as opposed to a genuine one firstly in reference to how Cinderella got her name in her story, but also because defining a person by their appearance feels icky.
I made the decision, as Annie Baker did, to cut out a weird section of the story where Vasilisa encounters three horse riders dressed in red, black and white, who represent evening, night and morning respectively. This section did originally feature in my retelling but I decided to cut it – for the same reason I imagine Baker did – just because it’s actually not super relevant to the rest of the story, other than signifying the time changes. Which can also be done by just… making the time pass. There’s some debate about whether the whole story is a commentary on the passing of time or something but yawn.
I decided to heighten the moral ambiguity of Baba Yaga, making her at some points a lovable granny and others a frightening witch. Again just because I thought it would be more fun as I love her duplicitous nature in the various Russian stories. She’s either a bogeyman figure and a good fairy figure depending on who you ask. But why not both at the same time?
I tried to up the ante with each challenge, making them more impossible each time to help ramp the tension, so invented that Vasilisa had to retrieve the corn from inside the witch’s stomach. Also a reference to Pinocchio, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and so on. Lots of folk stories where key objects are inside monstrous stomachs.
I made Vasilisa feed the doll her own spit, flesh and blood to make it seem slightly more as if she had some agency and choice in the matter as otherwise the doll just does all the work for her! She is giving up a part of herself to complete these tasks, so she has a hand in the work.
Vasilisa becoming a successful businesswoman at the end, as opposed to marrying the Tsar (as the original ends), just seemed to make sense with the story I’d already set up. I did originally have her being named the Official Imperial Toymaker and eventually marrying the Tsarina’s son mentioned earlier in the story, but it felt a bit icky marrying her into an imperial monarchy.
And I kept her father alive! Because I thought Vasilisa deserved a crumb of happiness.
And that’s about it! Most of the challenge with rewriting the story wasn’t in the making it new, but actually in retelling the parts I was keeping the same. It’s quite difficult to write in the classic ‘fairy tale’ register and I found it very easy to slip into “and then… and then…” which just wouldn’t be interesting to read. The changes I made mostly revolved around making the story more fun, giving the characters a little more agency (which is often so problematic in folktales, especially for the female characters), and structuring it in a way that ensured a proper arc. Just bear in mind I wrote this story in one evening so pls don’t take it as any indication of my best writing – it’s been ages since I wrote proper prose! If you want a decent retelling, go watch (or read) The Antipodes.
Annie Baker sets Sarah’s version of the story explicitly in a modern setting during Sarah’s childhood. Her evil stepfamily (Baker retains the ‘evil stepmother’ figure from the original story that I ditched for an aunt, I’ll touch on the reasons why I think she does in a bit) are every bit the modern high school cheerleader stereotype: they are “makeup-y […] popular […] super girly.” They live on a cul-de-sac: the quintessential feature of the American suburb. Sarah goes to hide the skull in the “garbage can” as opposed to the original’s rubbish heap. Sarah tells the story as if she’s recounting gossip about a drama-filled night out (“And so I go inside and it’s basically like my worst nightmare.”) She takes a break mid-story to chat to Sandy about who might be on the phone outside wanting to talk to him. This is a contemporary and boring setting for a fairy tale.
Not only is this pure Annie Baker ‘weird story told in a mundane way’ brilliance, but it’s also bringing the manner of storytelling back to its simplest, most primal form: gossip. The boring, everyday stories we use to entertain each other and learn who to trust to survive. But what Baker does retain is the inherent ‘fairy tale-ness’ of the story; it feels familiar to anybody – there’s a reason why all these reviewers are attributing it to the Grimms, the most familiar fairy tale collectors in this country. It has the cruel stepmother from Cinderella. The witch in the woods from Hansel and Gretel. The impossible tasks magically completed before morning from Rumpelstiltskin. The stealing from a villain like in Jack and the Beanstalk (admittedly not a Grimm story.) The original story even has Vasilisa somehow marrying the Tsar to become royalty at the end (a decision that both Annie and I decided to cut in our retellings) like in The Princess and the Pea, Beauty and the Beast, and countless others.
All these tropes in one allow Sarah’s story to feel familiar and strange all at the same time. Familiar enough without being entirely reminiscent of one single story (unless you already know Vasilisa.) Familiar enough that we understand so much about Sarah just from our cultural connotations of hearing her story, with all its clichés and ‘tropeyness’. Sarah doesn’t just appear to be a ditzy, girly girl, she is the very embodiment of it: a girl from a fairy tale, which makes her placement in this hyper-realistic, workplace setting all the more bizarre and intriguing. Is her story even true? If so, how did she get into our world from the world of stories? Is our world already the world of stories? Can a story ever truly be set in the ‘real world’? But we never get to find out; this is Annie Baker after all. As soon as Sarah’s done telling her story, she’s back in assistant-mode: “Did everyone write down their lunch orders? Where’s the sheet?”
And after all these retellings, it’s nice to find out what happened to one version of Vasilisa after one version of her happily ever after. My Vasilisa becomes a successful toymaker and the original marries a Tsar and becomes royalty – but the stories stop there. Baker lets us know what happened after.
There’s another Vasilisa out there somewhere working as an office assistant. She’s fetching takeaways and answering the phones for a group of dysfunctional storytellers prepping for the apocalypse.
And somehow the girl from the fairy tale is the most real of them all.
Illustrated, as always, by my marvellous friend, Jem Venn.