Zombie feminist theatre. That's what Thr3e Zisters, the Salvage Vanguard's new interpretation of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters, claimed to be. I was intrigued, excited. This, I thought, is a show I must see.
As those familiar with the theatre world know, Chekhov adaptations are a dime a dozen. I've never been hugely enamored of his work, and can't quite wrap my head around its continued popularity. ButThr3e Zisters promised to take adaptation a step further by adding feminist critique to the mix.
Playwright Lola Pierson said in her program note, “The idea of the dead and buried characters that we're constantly resurrecting also fell in line with my own feminist ideology. I wanted to explore how we treat classic female characters as artifacts instead of real people, and whose stories we actually end up telling.” Great! I thought. That sounds right up my alley.
But I ended up leaving the theatre feeling slightly disappointed, again, by Austin's love affair with a playwright whose work I feel fails to continue to resonate in the 21st century. There are certainly portions of Thr3e Zisters which deserve to be lauded. It was an enjoyable evening of theatre, even if I felt the play didn't go quite far enough toward meeting its stated goals.
I particularly enjoyed the set, which included a dilapidated farmhouse wall on wheels. This allowed for dynamic use of space, including moments when the sisters fly towards the audience or retreat, making certain portions of the performance feel more intimate than others. It also allowed the exterior wall to be shifted to the side, opening up the set for a wide range of locations throughout.
I also greatly enjoyed the moments when the zombie sisters were primal and scary, or even just confused and coming to know and understand themselves after being dug up from the ground. Women as zombies had the possibility to bring up old tropes like women as monstrous or women as emotional, women as body instead of mind. But I thought the sisters played that line deftly. If the play had centered around those three characters alone, it might have been a stronger critique.
But in addition to Olga, Masha, and Irina, the cast of characters included Andre, Vershinin, Tusenbach, and Suleny. For those who didn't just do the math, that means four male characters and three female. In a feminist adaptation. Natasha does makes a quick appearance, but as a non-reanimated corpse played by a doll instead of an actor who (spoilers) is raped on stage. What does it mean for male characters to still upstage and outnumber the female characters in a show meant to explore and critique modern gender roles?
Directly after being introduced to the zombie sisters, the audience is thrown into a scene where four men sit around a fire debating the relevance of Chekhov's work in the present day. It felt a little too self-referential. And also a little bit like the teenage girl who can't stop talking about what a jerk her ex-boyfriend is. Love and hatred are often two sides of the same coin, fuelled by the same passion. Thr3e Zisters made me think – can a Chekhov adaption ever truly get us past our cultural obsession with Chekhov?
When (spoilers) the zombie sisters ate their male lovers at the end of the performance in a beautifully gory and campy scene filled with blood and guts spraying toward the audience, all I could think was FINALLY. Finally, the sisters got angry. But why did it take the entire play for them to do so? Why did they spend an hour bending to the will of men before they reached their limit and fought back? Why did we need scenes with men rhapsing waxodic about Chekhov's greatness? For that matter, why did we need a synopsis of Three Sisters at the opening of the show at all? Can't modern audiences be trusted to follow an experimental theatre piece without a mansplaining of the plot beforehand?
Andre was also given the last line of the play (effectively giving the men the last word), “What else is there to say?” A purportedly feminist adaptation of Chekhov can't even allow the sisters have the last say in a show for which they are the titular characters. I want to know what the feminist zombie matriarchy looks like when the sisters eat all the men of the world, including their brother Andre. I want to know how the zombie sisters would interact with modern women, or what happens when they finally do make it to Moscow.
The concept behind Thr3e Zisters was intriguing, but the playwright and director didn't push it quite far enough. The men still had too much control over the sisters. Zombies are feral, wild, animalistic. They aren't ladies in bustles painted with rouge and lipstick like grotesque clowns. The men weren't afraid enough of the zombie three sisters, and the sisters weren't confident enough in their own power to control their destinies, even as preternatural beings.
The sisters were too content to let men boss them around and set the agenda. When the sisters did get angry, it was a relief. The audience could finally stop being angry on their behalf. The “femnazi” gets a bad name in our culture, but I think feminists do need to get angry again and stay angry if any real changes are to be made. We can't placate and play nice while our rights are eroded and we continue to play out antiquated gender roles.
The men carried around a giant tome throughout the show which was used as the fire for their campsite. Representing the cannon, I presume, or History as men would and do tell it, the book took on a greater significance. There is a scene when the sisters are trying to learn to read, but the fire emanating from the book blinds and hurts them. As long as men are in control of which narratives are acceptable to tell, women will (and do) pay the price. There's no true place for the sisters in the world these men have created, so they eventually destroy it. But they don't create a world of their own to take its place.
In the end, Thr3e Zisters ended up still a little too much like Three Sisters for my taste. I think it also proves, once and for all, that no adaptation, no matter how creative, will redeem Chekhov's work for the modern age. I hope this debate can finally be put to rest now, and buried for good. Maybe that was the goal all along. Maybe Pierson was trying to make the audience so sick of hearing men talk on and on about how wonderful Chekhov is that they never want to see an adaptation of one of his plays ever again. Maybe now all of that is out of our collective cultural system. As long as we reproduce Chekhov's work, a man is still running the show. If the sisters are ever to be central to the plot, it would have to be a different play entirely.
Thr3e Zisters runs through Valentine's Day. Tickets can be purchased here.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 01/29/15.