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BWW Review: THR3E ZISTERS Is In Your Face Brilliance

THR3E ZISTERS by Baltimore-based playwright Lola Pierson was conceived and directed by Yury Urnov of D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth and was first mounted by Salvage Vanguard Theatre in 2015. That smash hit is currently receiving a remount at The Off Center. The original production won 4 Austin Critics Table Awards including Best Production of a Comedy. The show is part modern adaption of Chekhov's Three Sisters and part critique of Chekhov's work along with fresh literal translations of the original Russian text. It is also a bold criticism of the intrinsic conflicts of producing classical theatre in contemporary times. For good measure, THR3E ZISTERS spends a little time analyzing the transitioning roles of gender and performance in contemporary culture.

The trio of titular sisters; Olga (Heather Hanna), Irina (Jenny Larson) and Masha (Shawn Sides); have been long dead and buried. Vershinin (Zac Crofford), Tusenbach (Jay Byrd), and Suleny (Noel Gaulin) exhume the sisters, planning to use them to create perfect women designed for pleasure. There's just one slight problem with their plan: the sisters just happen to be zombies. Once unburied, the sisters find themselves presented with a different time and way of life to adapt to while coming up against very stringent expectations. Think of it as feminist zombie theatre... there's a new genre for you.

What is remarkable about this piece is how it switches with lightening fast precision from educating the audience about Chekhov's work and his place in theatrical history, to a critique on doing essentially dead theatre vs theatre that speaks to the audiences of today, to a wild, bawdy and riotously funny parody of Russian drama. While the piece is a scant 65 minutes, this is one of the most visually and verbally dense yet entertaining and thought provoking hours I have ever spent in a theater.

Director Yury Urnov has done a sensational job with this piece. It moves like a runaway train, is full of breathtakingly beautiful imagery and gets, quite literally, in your face. There isn't a wasted moment the entire performance. Even the silences crackle with intensity.

The play begins with Andrei (Robert Matney) as our narrator, of sorts, who explains everything the audience needs to know about Chekhov's original play using Russian nesting dolls, cutlery, a tomato and a pickle. And about that pickle... before any of this, Matney does about ten minutes eating that pickle and reacting to his surroundings in a solo moment that brings to mind the brilliance of silent film comedy greats Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

From there, the audience is treated to a brash, in your face blitzkreig experience. And when I say in your face, I mean it quite literally. Ia Enstera's set advances from the back of the cavernous space of the Off Center to be at the feet of the first row. We are introduced to the sisters in the window of this wall during a monologue that posits that the scent of cut flowers is them screaming to the other flowers for help. And don't worry, the illogic of that thought gets immediately challenged. The moment manages to be simultaneously eerie and hilarious. Throughout the remainder of the performance this wall advances, recedes and even rotates during a chase scene with actors leaping through the windows during rotation. It is one of the finest uses of the space I've ever seen. Natalie George Lights the proceedings using the full palette of color, creating some truly beautiful moments juxtaposed with stark reality lighting. Jessica Gilzow's costumes are wonderfully appropriate and Robert Fisher once again delivers a smart and witty sound design to support the action.

The performances here are all exquisite making it difficult to single any one actor out. The three sisters, Heather Hanna, Jenny Larson and Shawn Sides, are all sublime both vocally and physically. The three men, Jay Byrd, Zac Crofford and Noel Gaulin are also excellent in multiple roles. Noel Gaulin is especially vocally superb in a perfectly mannered performance.

There is delicious irony in the fact that Chekhov's original play brought about new theatrical tastes with the work this show now deconstructs. I also loved the scene where Russian sensibilities dismiss American acting styles. While satire and parody may not be everyone's cup of tea, where this one is concerned, I thoroughly enjoyed this Big Gulp of a serving now going on at the Off Center.

While there's plenty going on that everyone will enjoy, those who like their humor on the sarcastic or snarky side will be highly entertained. If you missed this show during the original premiere, don't make the same mistake during this remount. This is a perfect example of original Austin's theatre at its finest.

THR3E ZISTERS by Lola Pierson

Running time: 65 Minutes. No intermission.

Advisory: Fog effects are used. Adult situations.

THR3E ZISTERS produced by Salvage Vanguard Theater at The Off Center (2211-A Hidalgo Street, near Robert Martinez and E. 7th Street, behind Joe's Bakery
Austin, TX, 78702) now thru Feb 18, 2017. Thursday -Saturday nights at 8pm.

TICKETS are pay-what-you-wish ($15 suggested) and can be purchased online at or in person at the box office (open one hour before each performance). Tickets are FREE for teens every night at the door.

Champagne Celebration FEBRUARY 18, 2017 at 8 pm
A gala performance. Tickets start at $35 and include a post-show party with champagne and catering with the cast and creative team.

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