In The Seeing Place Theater’s production of Chekov’s Three Sisters the birch trees, rendered abstractly on a back wall of the dilapidated ATA Sergeant Theater on 53rd Street, are uncanny sentinels, observers whose angular geometry comments on the gap between the characters’ hopes and the shifts they are forced to accept to cope with life’s capricious freaks. The company strives for a similar effect in the props and staging. The first thing you notice when you take your seat are labels in the place of theatrical property: a piece of paper with “Book” in black marker, a wooden bench labeled “Olga’s Bed” and a wooden block tagged “CLOCK.” Director Brandon Walker amplifies these Brechtian touches by requiring the stage manager to sit upstage from the actors and give cues to a tech sitting in the booth throughout the performance.
The “alienation” technique is itself a symbolic means of showing how we (characters, actors, and audience) negotiate life’s random walk using symbols. Like Irina Prozorova, we look to the trees to tell us what it’s like outside – because that’s how we understand what it’s like inside. Walker uses the Sergeant Theater’s atrophied interior as a backdrop to collapse tradition, modernism, and decay, as theoretical expressions of past, present, and future into one visual now: the “realism” of Chekhov’s late 19th century theatre is broken against a backdrop of ruined ceiling tiles and painted black brick. Irina’s hopes to return to Moscow and her invocation of the painted birch trees on the back wall are both painfully abstract and deeply grounded in real, human angst and ennui.
The strength of this company is in its actors. Mr. Walker, who has played Malvolio and Dan in Patrick Marber’s Closer with the company, nails brother Andrey’s descent from sensitive intellectual to bourgeois sell-out. Daniela Thome anchors the play with Olga’s long-suffering gravitas. The romantic frisson between Erin Cronican and David Sedgwick is palpable and intense. Kathleen Brower is suitably wicked as Natasha. My favorite in this production is Ned Lynch as Kulygin. Lynch is a rare treat: he is unabashedly theatrical, but in a sly wink-and-a-nod way that shows off his natural chops. I hope to see him in more and larger roles with The Seeing Place company.
Beyond spatial aesthetics, the condition of the theater is a testament to how hard working and dedicated this company is. Their low their ticket prices make this classic drama a very affordable way to see real human beings and the plenitude of emotional experience that implies. That is a true gift in a world drowning in digital abstraction.
ATA Sergeant Theater, 314 West 54th St. 4th Floor. NYC