Review: Three, or the Sound of the Great Existential Nothingness by Breaking String Theater
by Brian Paul Scipione

What Philosophers Call It


A pause button. Many wish for it and none achieve it.


Many of life’s moments skyrocket past us with meteor-like frenzy. Some we miss altogether, because we were simply too wrapped up in, well, what we consider to be life. Vonnegut fantasizes about something similar in Slaughterhouse Five: the ability to stretch time out like taffy, look at each and every important moment from our past, and understand how they brought us to the present. Because, honestly, we know all along as it’s happening. One thing does lead to anotherr and while nothing was actually our fault, if we could do it all over again differently -- we probably would.


Three or the Sound of Existential Nothingness is not science fiction or a playful modern fantasy. It’s a modern adaption of Chekov’s masterpiece The Three Sisters.  

Jeff Mills (photo: Will Hollis Snider)The play portrays the titular trio plus one lover and one brother. No special effects or time travel involved; yet while watching the play, the spectator is whisked back and forth, through a thousand moments: many seem insignificant but all matter.



Allow me to explain, if I can (avoiding spoilers and misdirection, of course).


Within the first three minutes of the evening the fourth wall is shattered. No objection to that; many people know that playwright Timothy Braun is adapting 113-year-old material for a modern audience: why not take a casual approach to the format? Alas, this is only the least of the changes to this inter-dimensional story. The crux of the drama lies not in what Andres the brother (Jeff Mills) says directly to the audience as the de facto narrator. Rather, it consists of every little thing the characters don’tsay. Here, the five players of Three truly explode the parameters of Ia Enstera’s theatre-in-the-round set-up.


Wait, let’s pause and rewind. . . .

Gricelda Silva (photo: Will Hollis Snider) 

The play starts (after the play starts) in an unknown town. Three sisters and one brother are getting ready to celebrate the youngest sister’s 21st birthday. It’s a birthday party exactly like every birthday party they’ve celebrated in this small unknown town -- until the Captain walks in.


 The Captain (Chris Gisbson) is many things all at once: the favored pupil of their father, the new big shot in town, the ex-lover of one of the sisters. He’s the representation of the glamorous world beyond the little town, but perhaps most importantly, he’s the portal through which the family is roughly transported to the moment ten years ago when their father died and life as they knew it changed irrevocably.


The youngest sister Irina (Gricelda Silva) was only a child then. She still answers to her nickname ‘Shorty,’ even now that she’s officially entering adulthood. Her enthusiasm is bright, appropriate and unrestrained. The Captain is nothing to her any more, other than the evocation of everything the outside world may be.




Dawn Youngs (photo: Will Hollis Snider)


 The oldest sister Olga (Dawn Youngs) is as prim and proper as she was ten years ago, but she cannot help responding at this living reminder of everything her father meant to her. The Captain is all confidence, grace, and superiority. Having him there means she no longer needs to be on her toes at every second, mothering her brother and two sisters. In fact, now she can even channel the young damsel she once was.


Middle sister Masha (Cami Alys) is apparently so far transformed from the extroverted, carefree lassie she once was that one cannot imagine the Captain’s appearance will re-awaken her. But it does, in bits. And so we come back to the pause button. It doesn’t exist, but we realize that sometime during the first third of the play, it has indeed been un-clicked. These characters we’ve just met were in stasis, floundering in a small town, trying to live up to some notion of what their father may or may not have wanted. Now, now that the specter of their past has not only returned but has opened the door to the vast potential of their lives. And here the tension begins to mount. . . .



Jeff Mills, Cami Alys, Chris Gibson (photo: Will Hollis Snider)


 And thanks to absolutely incredible acting and superbly tight timing, the action mounts at a fever pitch. When we first saw them, the sisters were none too promising, only solid archetypes. Andres introduced them with a shrug and a sigh while deprecating everything in the modern world, from Facebook to cell phones. He is all grimaces and shrugs, and the sisters follow suit at first. But slowly, whether the audience realizes it or not, everything they say and do, and more vitally, do not say and do not do, raises a nearly palpable tension.


Steven Shirey’s moody and intense lighting design contributes, and Buzz Moran’s sound design is jovial and eclectic. A soft orange glow pervades the stage at times, only to morph into a million points of starlight and then suddenly drop into a wash of black. The music and sound effects drift through a time-less abyss, like the play’s setting. Straight guitar rock sometimes, then country, then the incessant ringing of cell phones, and then the smooth cadence of Latin dance, all punctuated by the tolling of that old vinyl ding from read- along storybooks that urges that it’s time to turn the page.


Cami Alys, Chris Gibson (photo: Will Hollis Snider)




“People don’t want what you want,” Andre comments to Olga in a half-dismissive and half pleading tone, This ironically sums up the positions of all the characters in the play: ironically, because none of them can admit or even be sure of what they really want. In a single evening the play dismisses ten years of stasis and then raises the tension by implying insistently that maybe it’s not too late to resurrect bygone dreams. As we watch the characters convince themselves, we too become convinced, then excited, and then delightedly hopeful -- maybe even ecstatic. We could, like the aliens in Vonnegut’s story, be watching these characters at any given point in the timelines of their lives.


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Three, or the Sound of the Great Existential Nothingness
by Timothy Braun
Breaking String Theater

July 26 - August 17, 2013
Off Center
2211-A Hidalgo Street
near Robert Martinez and E. 7th Street, behind Joe's Bakery
Austin, TX, 78702