Jeanette Harrison, executive director of Marin County's renowned Alternative Theater Ensemble, admits that in choosing this Spring's play—Nilo Cruz's Two Sisters and a Piano—the distinguished company is taking a bit of a risk. But that, she acknowledges with a contented laugh, is really nothing new.
"Every play we do feels like it's taking a risk," Harrison says. "The plays we do aren't exactly easy. But we live in a pretty savvy area here in the North Bay, and most of our audiences are willing to come along with us on plays that are often a bit of a bumpy ride."
Set in communist Cuba in 1991, Two Sisters and a Piano follows a pair of culturally refined women who've been under house arrest for having signed an anti-Castro manifesto, an act they've already served prison time for. Pianist Sofia (played by Harrison) and writer Maria Celia (Dawn Scott) have each adapted to the situation differently, but when word comes that the Soviet Union has fallen, both sisters anticipate the speedy end of Castro's oppressive rule and their own imminent freedom.
Directed by Ann Brebner, the show is staged in typically nontheatrical surroundings. AlterTheater traditionally performs their shows up close and personal, using nontraditional performance spaces—in this case, a former retail store—that allow the audience to have an intimate connection with the actors.
"The great thing about working this way," Harrison says, "is there's no place to hide—and the terrible thing about it is, there's no place to hide! Because of the intimacy of the staging, we look for plays that have strong characters. Since the audience is going to be so close, you want them to have a strong connection with those characters.
"This play," she adds, "has incredible characters. Who wouldn't want to spend two hours with these women in their living room?"
Given the developments in the Middle East, Harrison expects audiences to react to Two Sisters in very powerful ways.
"With all of the political unrest in the world," she says, "the revolutions and personal politics we've seen played out on the news over the last several months," she muses, "it's important to look at what happens to the people who speak up when the revolution isn't successful. This play is in some ways about holding on to hope at all costs, about fighting to hold on to hope, and the moment when that hope is broken."
'Two Sisters and a Piano' runs Wednesday and Friday-Saturday through May 29. Wednesday at 7:30pm; Friday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday matinees at 2pm. 888 Fourth St., San Rafael. $25. 415.454.2787. www.altertheater.org.