marin county, Theatre

Two Sisters and a Piano Hot off the Press

This may be my fastest turnaround yet for a show commentary, but I am trying to keep the pace as I see two more shows tonight and tomorrow before going on hiatus for a while.

My 29th show seen this year was Two Sisters and a Piano, currently receiving a Bay Area premiere at my “hometown” theatre, Alternative Theatre Ensemble. The play is directed by my friend and local mentor Ann Brebner, and is just settling in to its run, due to continue through May 29.
The playwright, Nilo Cruz, became well known for his Pulitzer Prize winning Anna in the Tropics, which I saw in its UK/European premiere at the Hampstead Theatre in London in 2004. I will always remember that evening, as it was when I met my favorite British actress Diana Rigg, who just happened to be in the audience supporting her daughter, Rachael Stirling, performing in the leading role. I remember that I wrote about that experience in my (still online) former primary blog, so I will quote from it (in an entry written on November 27, 2004) here:

Am still on a high from meeting Diana Rigg this evening. She is by far my favorite British actress and getting to meet her in person, even though it was just a brief conversation, is the icing on the cake for the whole experience here. Her daughter Rachel Stirling had a starring role in the second show I saw today called Anna and the Tropics and she clearly inherited her mother’s strong stage presence, easily rising above the material that was already dramatically rich. Earlier today I’d had a feeling that Diana might attend the performance…was surprised that turned out to be correct! She was sitting just two rows ahead of me in the theatre and I recognized her instantly, although the rest of the people sitting nearby were either being blissfully ignorant or courteous of her, so I followed their example even though I really wanted to say something of admiration as I walked out for the intermission right behind her. Once the show ended it became a “now or never” moment. I went out again only a few feet behind her but then she sat down in the foyer, probably to wait to congratulate her daughter. So I went ahead but was thinking “should I or shouldn’t I?”, having heard via the Avengers.TV forum that she sometimes prefers privacy over recognition. But once I saw an older woman go up to cordially greet her and Diana receiving her very warmly, that sealed it. I went back over to her table and kept it simple, saying “your daughter was excellent. I love your work.” (That’s all there is to say, really.) She seemed genuinely appreciative, giving me a warm smile and saying “thank you” in a friendly theatrical tone to me that gave a sense of her stage experience even through voice. It was enough to send me running to the bus stop (and I could have gone on down the street home) with a huge smile.

Back to San Rafael in 2011…

Two Sisters and a Piano is a local reunion of sorts, as three of the four actors (Jeanette Harrison – company co-founder, Dawn Scott, and Matt Jones; bios all here) appeared in Alter’s fall production of Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, also directed by Ann Brebner. This time, a wide and spacious performance location at 888 Fourth Street serves the story well. I was reminded thematically of Sonia Flew which I saw at the very beginning of this year and felt that the two titles might function well as companion pieces or a double bill.

Harrison and Scott deliver passionate and complimentary, well nuanced performances as two sisters under house arrest in 1991 Cuba. The world is changing around them, as the Soviet Union disintegrates and other uprisings occur on a global scale. (There are clear parallels to the events of today’s modern times…) In spite of this, the sisters are only able to decipher outside events through the views from their rooftop garden. They are offered tantalizing opportunities to see what’s going on around them – primarily through a shifty military man, but also through a piano tuner man who both interact with them. The confinement and mental insecurity of being under arrest is well conveyed through staging and the contrasting feelings of optimism and desperation.

The use of music in several scenes as transitions and enhancements gives the play a cinematic and sweeping quality. In the audience, I felt myself pausing for contemplation at these moments, whether the characters were doing something on stage or the scene was changing. It gave a real sense of the passage of time and what can be done to the story. The play does not conclude on quite the optimistic note that I expected – which is fine, even refreshing. The story is not tied up neatly and it is up to the audience to ultimately make the final determinations. At the same time, there is a feeling of a real slice of life, getting an authentic sense of what the period offered and how it may link to today. There is a haunting, thoughtful quality to the story that lingered in my mind walking out of the theatre.


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