Review: Thr3E Zisters, at Salvage Vanguard Theatre
by Michael Meigs
Robert Matney's solo appearance for the first eight minutes or so of Three Zisters is a pure delight. Attentively silent and diffident in his vaguely Russian garb, he greets the audience with his eyes, nibbles a pickle, checks the samovar, works through an exquisite sequence of business and gestures that leaves the audience rapt, fascinated by his subtle pantomime, reminiscent of Chaplin in the silents.
Once he finds his voice we learn that he's there to outline to us the plot of Chekhov's Three Sisters. His rapid review is done almost as reverie. He uses table objects as the characters of the 1900 theatre piece that brought a new style and sensibility to dramatic art. Matney reminds the audience of the plot sequenceand may actually be informing many of them for their first times.
He doesn't set the stage for the Pierson/Urnov adaptation of Chekhov's The Three Sisters, because Ia Ensterä's set does that, literally, by itself. After Matney clears off, the looming wall at the far depths of the SVT space animates itself and comes rolling forward, menacing under the cold gleaming stage lights, stopping only inches short of the theatre seats. We're flooded with cacophony as we suddenly see bloodless female bodies emerge from the windows and drape themselves bonelessly across the openings. They move, they speak, one delivers an eerie wailing monologue insisting that the smell of cut flowers is really the flowers screaming in pain. It's an exquisitely scary moment.
And from that point on the show goes rapidly, screamingly downhill.
Russian director Yury Urnov employs some of Austin's most dedicated and original stage talent to put on Baltimore artist Lola Pierson's mash-up of Chekhov and zombie scary-tales. The arrogant premise behind it is supremely inadapted to American audiences, for the two are lampooning and dismissing as irrelevant a theatre piece that entirely too few U.S. theatre goers know anything about. The concept might achieve a succes de scandale in Russia, where Chekhov is revered. Successive Soviet and Russian regimes interpreted his moodily indirect and diffuse pieces to suit themselves, and where art is embraced by politics it is all too often embalmed.
But in the United States? Urnov's kinetic direction and Pierson's script flail away in every direction. Men hauling a casket (or at least, a box) through a howling tempest of music arrive at the sisters' remote estate, so far from the delights of Moscow, and they set about reviving those tired dead zombie corpses once again for a walkthrough of the plot. Noel Gaulin with his intense vocalization and stalking presence tells us how epic and how unmatched Chekhov the dramatist was; Zac Crofford appears swathed in his greatcoat as the battery commander Lt. Col. Vershnin, fiercely impatient that his men haven't yet gotten the dead sisters properly prepared for their zombie walkthrough.
There's a good deal of dismissive talk about the inadequacies of American acting practice and its insistence on the actor 'feeling the character's emotions' ('that's all superannuated Stanislavsky' seems to be the smartass message). The sisters are hauled about the stage, decorated, recostumed, subjected to the whims of the visitors. The enactment of the plot events of the original is cursory and incomplete, and the hectic events on stage eventually turn into a whirling, racing mess. The dead sisters appear to exact their revenge but they do not gain their rest.
Zombie stories have always left me cold, for there's already more than enough pain and threat in the real world, both in the great events and in daily round of our lives. But the extravagance, noise and unpredictability of the irrational story clearly pleased the audience at the Salvage Vanguard that Saturday night.
Aural and visual spectacle were laid on thick to make up for the lack of coherence. And lots of Austin's cool theatre folk were there, as well, both on stage and in the audience. Thr3e Zisters runs Thursdays through Saturdays at the SVT's larger space, and it's sure to be well attended by the few who know Chekhov and are curious to see this treatment and by the many who're excited by the prospect of cheap thrills.
2803 E Manor Rd
Austin, TX, 78722
January 22- February 14, 2015; VIP Performance: February 13
Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Tickets available here