Three Sisters: Chilly Scenes of Winter

B. Iden Payne Theatre, UT campus
through April 19
Running time: 2 hrs, 45 min

A long wall crosses the back of the stage, a wall of mustard yellow, covered with what looks to be bluish moss. Behind it rise up dozens of tall, spindly birch branches, their whiteness and thinness accentuated by a broad expanse of blackness behind them. Some of that darkness is obscured by a white scrim that hangs partway down the back wall, but its presence is still deeply felt. It suggests an all-consuming void, an endless night against which skeletal fingers are clawing their way out of a decaying tomb. It is as barren and forbidding a landscape as any conceived by Beckett, and it is the landscape that Richard Isackes has designed for his directorial venture into the world of Three Sisters.

Barrenness, isolation, futility, despair -- these are the qualities in Chekhov's script to which Isackes seems to respond. In staging this UT Department of Theatre & Dance production, he takes almost every opportunity to play up the bleakness of the characters' existence, the harshness with which they treat each other, the bitterness with which they regard their lives, their sense of the ultimate pointlessness of it all. Here, characters complain sharply about their lives, snap at each other at the slightest provocation, withdraw moodily to empty areas of the stage, drop fitfully into chairs and stare gloomily into space. The line "What difference does it make?" becomes the production's refrain, a question repeated frequently with such intensity and rancor that it hangs in the air for minutes afterward.

This version of the Prozorovs' world is not wholly without warmth. Bill Watson is an animated Vershinin, propounding his visions of a utopian future with busy hands and a big smile. His Vershinin and Sharron Bower's Masha discover their love for each other with a deep tenderness. Janelle Schremmer's Olga evinces a sweet generosity toward her aged servant. Jay Sefton's Baron is endearingly sincere in his pursuit of Amber Voiles' Irina. And before he succumbs to spiteful resignation, David Nancarrow's Chebutykin displays some grandfatherly affection. But against the whole of the production, these moments are just a handful of matches burning on a snow-covered hillside. Overall, almost all the characters come across here as self-absorbed, ill-tempered, spoiled, condescending. In them Isackes seems to be pointing out how they prefigure the existential characters of Beckett and Sartre, bitterly fretting away their lives in a wasteland of frustration, decay, and death. Travelers across this barren land are advised to bring their own sources of warmth. -- Robert Faires


Hyde Park Theatre
through April 19
Running time: 1 hr, 30 min

I don't get Absolutely Fabulous. Sure, sure, every now and again something will strike me as funny, but largely I just don't get it. When I mention this to rabid fans, they often think I have absolutely no sense of humor, which very well may be the case. Or it may simply be that I am not the intended audience and therefore just don't share enough common experience in order to laugh at the right places.

I must admit I had the same response to Hot Flash!, a new comedy by C.K. McFarland and Heloise Gold. To me, this play, about two menopausal women who use their hot flashes and mood swings to save the world, was like a glimpse into a society that I don't understand, even though I will be joining it in the next 25 years. My experience seemed to be completely different from the rest of the audience's, many members of which were almost literally rolling in the aisles.

Putting my lack of connection to the work aside, the piece works fairly well as theatre. Ann Marie Gordon's beautifully painted set and Jason Amato's saturated lights anchor the wacky world of these women and their Heat-Meiser hair. McFarland and Gold give energetic and heartfelt performances, despite the fact that their script lacks any real transitions from one wacky situation to the next and, many times, they didn't seem to know what came next.

But what do I know? I'm not part of the group that would get this, which makes me feel like my mother, who has trouble understanding the finer points of The Tick. To its target audience, however, Hot Flash! appears to be a scream, and it works simply as a piece that speaks to them.

-- Adrienne Martini


THIN Gallery
through April 26

I do believe an arts trend is upon us. I'm discovering more and more artists -- usually young, insurgent types -- who are avoiding the gallery scene and choosing to exhibit their works on their turf of choice: in their house or studio. These artists are frustrated with various aspects of the local arts scene, particularly with its lack of galleries showing experimental work. So they're creating such galleries themselves.

That's the reasoning behind the THIN Gallery. DIY - do it yourself - is the brief description John Bruch gives of this gallery/workspace he shares with Paul Beck, who returned to Austin last year after a four-year stint in San Francisco. Unable to find what they felt was a proper local outlet for their unique creations, the two decided to transform part of their studio into exhibition space for their works (and works by their friends from Chicago and San Francisco) before shipping them off to usual galleries in Dallas and California. "We did this just to do it and to show our work in Austin," Beck says, "because then I have to pack it up and send it out of town."

Beck's unusual drawings line the walls of the tiny, aptly-named space, filling the air with a chaotic and frenetic energy. Each piece features a pencil drawing, usually a detail of a person's face or body, with yellow shellac and "golden glow gone bad" (a sealant that has been exposed to the elements too long, giving it a black, tar-like appearance) splattered across the paper to add texture and cougar-like colors to the otherwise simple pieces. The detailed drawings are finely executed, a stark contrast to the seemingly random splotches of color. These works are a good example of what happens when formal artistic training is fused with unconventional technique: it's a style that is DIY. -- Cari Marshall


Women & Their Work
through May 3

One thing you can say for certain about this show: It's varied. A little abstract painting here, some black-and-white photography there, a burned forest here, a woman-on-the-verge there. As a whole, the collection's most striking feature is the multi-disciplinary aspect, although it does create a noticeable lack of unity among the works.

But this is a members' exhibition, featuring selected works by 19 artists of Women & Their Work's 176 members, and curator Annette Carlozzi, curator of contemporary art for the Huntington Gallery at UT, obviously made an effort to encompass a variety of styles in her selections. The variety would be better suited in a much larger space, but the Women & Their Work folks did a surprisingly good job arranging such a mélange of techniques and media into their one large room.

Some of the most striking works include Marjorie Moore's oils, which depict her apparent affinity for monkeys. Just Us features two wonderfully expressive chimpanzees with shimmery, silky hair, encircled (trapped?) by an orange sphere, suspended in a thick, green haze. Moore's use of dark, rich oils give the works an almost three-dimensional look, adding deep space behind the suspended, floating monkeys. Some of her other pieces explore the Raggedy Ann-like characterizations of sock monkeys, with their limp bodies and wide, red mouths and posteriors.

Nina Beall uses a heavy hand with acrylics to create a rubber-like texture that adds to the menacing settings of her paintings. In the Forest is a mammoth, disquieting piece, depicting a seemingly post-apocalyptic (or post-forest fire) scene, with charred dead trees surrounded by black, fallen birds, all cast in an eerily luminous glow from the burning red colors on the horizon. -- Cari Marshall

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