Into the Woods with Baba Yaga

Fertile Ground: Sam Reiter embodies the Slavic wise woman of the forest in a compelling foray into the mythological



The Headwaters Theater is on the beaten tracks. Passing by the huddled Arts and Crafts homes of old North and Northeast Portland and down a winding path, you end up right against the railroad tracks, where the full-speed-ahead comings and goings of lumber-cars packed high to the rafters are signed off by the fugitive and ornate scripts of graffiti artists. It’s then just a small journey to the Headwaters stage: as can never be overstated, Portland’s vibrant theater scene can take you to hidden places, where at the end of the night it is well worth the time. Down this road, heading out to the little-known, you’ll find the creative spark of Sam Reiter’s Baba Yaga.

Reiter as "The Maiden Tsar." Photo: Trevor Sargent

Reiter as “The Maiden Tsar.” Photo: Trevor Sargent

Reiter’s folk-steeped performance, part of the Fertile Ground festival of new works, touches on the history and nature of the feminine. There’s been some contemporary ferment history-wise for women, who have been searching for their mostly undocumented past in the grand annals that celebrate battles, buildings, and heads of state. Silvia Federici‘s Caliban and the Witch came out more than a decade ago and signaled a change in the grassroots memories of women through time. The Slavic folk figure Baba Yaga (Bah-buh Yuh-gah) is not necessarily a witch, but rather the personification of the outlaw: an older woman living alone in the forest in a movable house supported by chicken feet. By her connection to a natural and personal power, as reinforced by thunderclaps and frights, she’s been given an overall “yes” from the universe.

Reiter, directed by Caitlin Fisher-Draeger, takes on the powerful-woman mythos in a majestic, loving performance that is an invocation of an old spirit. We’re in a small, but professional-looking theater. The sounds of Gogol Bordello, the Romani punk band from the outskirts of the still-fragmenting Iron Curtain, fill our ears. We’re reminded that our understanding of the Slavic East – Ukraine, the Ashkenazi shtetls, the Russian quarter of a continent – is deficient. While we may leaf through our Nabakov and celebrate his butterfly collection, there’s a deeper literary trust that has been ghosted out by the West. The pushing and pulling begins with Baba Yaga, and with Reiter, dragging along through the metaphysical veil in a specific storytelling tradition that has universal parallels. Baba’s a diva, in the Brahmanic sense, and beyond – like a sweet but uncertain Bangkok rickshaw driver, for instance; or like the jazz legend Miles Davis, half-person in body, and half-spirit, too, a little otherworldly: someone we go to for wisdom, but there’s never enough time on the clock for him to explain what we will barely understand. Reiter has loved Baba Yaga for a long time, and the deep knowledge of the wistful woman is real from the start.

In the next hour, the magic of sunlight passing across morning dew, the fragments of old book pages making the air musty, the hero’s quest, are alive. Reiter, supported by Robert Amico’s effective shadow puppetry, is Baba Yaga: a feral look in her eyes, a young woman transformed into the old crone who transmits messages from the stardust down to us, the very frequent inhabitants who lie in error of the universe.

Layers and layers of images tell some of the many stories of Baba Yaga. The dreams or nightmares we had as children: a panic with breadcrumbs; being saved by small, but impressive animals; finding the way to true love. In many productions of fairytale theater, the obvious intent is to cultivate future theatergoers, and right they should. But Baba Yaga is the pure magic of stardust settling, and because of its very nature, it is prone to singe us here and there. It’s an archetype, resurrected: raw, age-old storytelling.

Baba Yaga, deep in the forest of the mind. Photo: Trevor Sargent

Baba Yaga, deep in the forest of the mind. Photo: Trevor Sargent


Baba Yaga continues through January 28 at The Headwaters. Ticket and schedule information are here.




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