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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.
“Be not afraid of greatness” is the advice Malvolio gets from an anonymous letter in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” Our officious, comedic villain hopes the greatness of his mistress Olivia will be thrust upon him, a thought that tickles him in all the wrong places. Ever ready to put a subordinate in his place or flatter his betters, when he sees the opportunity to move up the social ladder a rung or two Malvolio exults in the thought that he could be better than he is.
The idea that you can be better than you are was laughable to the play’s Elizabethan audience. You were born into your place; you stay in your place; and morality consists of being faithful to who you are. People act immorally when they put on airs, or act beneath their station. We laugh at the type of fool Malvolio represents in hopes that public scorn will teach him a lesson in humility. It’s an important lesson to learn, because those who don’t learn it turn into tyrants and / or corpses.