Review: Three, or the Sound of the Great Existential Nothingness by Breaking String Theater
by David Glen Robinson
Brother Andre’s cell ringtone is Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, and that’s everything, right up front, for Three, or, The Sound of the Great Existential Nothingness by Timothy Braun. Each and every character on stage goes down, down, down in a burning ring of fire, seemingly without redemption.
Breaking String Theater produces the play at the Off Center, possibly the east side’s most prestigious venue. In marketing material, the play is described as a modern reworking of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. After having seen the show, I’m glad I decided to drink the play neat. Put down your Chekhov and go to the show.
Andre and his three sisters have been settled in an unbelievably small and provincial town distinguished by its nothingness. The town is located by the characters by spinning a globe and jamming their fingers onto it at random. Nothing could say every-nowhere better than that. The siblings’ doctor father did this to his four children when the town pleaded for a general practitioner. The doctor took the job and then died, leaving the children to attain adulthood and stumble through the wreckage of their lives, featuring advanced alcoholism, profligacy and gambling addiction. The play makes no mention of their mother.
The action takes place on the 21st birthday of the youngest daughter, Irina, and although Brother Andre bribes several of the townspeople to come to the weekend-long bash, only two show up, but these two are straight out of the family’s past. They are The Captain, played by Chris Gibson, and Officer in Training, played by David Higgins. Under the solvent of alcohol, the layers of denial slowly wash away, and the characters and their histories lie exposed and raw. We all have a little somethin’ to hide; but these people have to deal with icebergs, strip mines, nuclear waste dumps, and Cambodian minefields of the inner landscape -- with fracking in progress.
Director Schmidt leads us deftly through the carnage with an excellent cast. Cami Alys is notable as Masha, threatening, black-garbed; a Miss Attitude who, when not running with her scissors, holsters them prominently in her boot. She also scissors pictures out of library books as her sole prerogative as the town’s English teacher. Later, Andre says she is getting worse. We believe it. Ms Alys performs with supreme physicality, matched in the cast only by the gracile Gricelda Silva as Irina.
Jeff Mills as Andre and Dawn Youngs as Olga play with greater restraint than the others, as their characters require. With Andre this is due to a profound emotional weakness that leads him to trifle with the town punch and gamble with everything from the dog to the deed to the ranch. He talks smartass, even as a frame-bending narrator, but his heart is in nothing but ennui. Mills’s accomplishment in performing with this low intensity for all but a few minutes of the play is a credit to his skills. Olga, as the oldest sister, is bound by conventionality and the imperative to do the right thing. Youngs plays her with glimpses of Olga’s bottled rage and shows her physicality in games of jump-rope late in the play. This sequence, along with the party scene, adds creative dimension and relieves the audience after an hour of sturmand drang.
Ia Enstera, continuing her fertile partnership with Breaking String, designed a set not in the round, but in the triangle. The playing surface is a dark, smooth, wooden triangular platform. It is formed of composite panels and beams of wood, all well polished. A few items of furniture suggest a domestic living room. Above the set hangs a galaxy of unfrosted light bulbs and a few other instruments, just above head height, all set in their courses by Steven Shirey, the new Austin lighting god. Whether hallucination or optical illusion, the galaxy seems to move and wheel as the lighting sets change, not just when Irina bumps the bulbs partying on the shoulders of The Captain. The dark of the earth and the light of the sky face each other eternally, and human beings play between. This compelling image is a 21st century updating of the tribal three-level cosmos, found throughout tribal cultures in their ur-myths worldwide and no doubt prehistorically, as well The mythic articulation is Mother Earth and Father Sky; other personifications are common. Almost universal in this cosmology is the Middle Place, where humans, plants and animals dwell and water flows. This is the universal stage, and Three’s set and lighting design have struck into it in imagistic and symbolic ways. Great credit goes to designers Enstera and Shirey.
After the pivotal exposure of Masha’s Tragic Secret, and the cascade of failures admitted by the characters at the last, things get worse when the town’s one balloon racer, with Irina’s love interest on board, collides with the power plant, which explodes and vaporizes half the town. Rather than appearing as a plot contrivance, the disaster possesses an eerie realism in its comparison with the explosion disaster in West, Texas this year. The Captain, Officer in Training and Andre are drawn off into emergency medical efforts. Contriving a plan of profound denial, the sisters prepare to abandon the house and return to their home from before, tellingly unnamed, where they imagine all will be well and the sisters will return to childlike innocence.
Of course not. And in the shattering of this last dream, all that is left is sacrifice, and that for survival, not for victory. The acts of sacrifice take up the last bits of strength within, unrevealed until now, but absolutely required to set right the Middle Place. Masha’s sacrifice grasps, successfully, a grain of healing between herself, her old lover, and Andre. Andre, having earlier verbally disclaimed any meaning or purpose in life while denying the existence of God, gives a sudden, man-up shouldering of responsibility godlike in its transformative power. By the end, it is clear that the characters will continue to stumble through their personal wreckage, but from that point on without the grinding misery of worrying that things could be better or could have turned out differently. In their cases, acceptance is as good as redemption.
Graham Schmidt and Breaking String have never stumbled through anything. As long as I have followed them, their choices have been sure and their productions sure-footed. Their peers in Austin are Steve Moore’s Physical Plant Theatre and only a few others. As I have written before, theatre-goers must, for their enrichment in all things theatre, seek out Breaking String Theater at any time and this play, Three, or, the Sound of the Great Existential Nothingness while it is up. It runs until August 17, 2013 (not 2014 as misprinted on the program).
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2211-A Hidalgo Street
near Robert Martinez and E. 7th Street, behind Joe's Bakery
Austin, TX, 78702