From The Front Row To The Stage

Placing the actors with the audience in Windfall’s THREE SISTERS

Feb. 14, 2010
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On making it to my second show of the week, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the seats in the audience were very close to the set. Like the Boulevard Theatre’s All’s Well That Ends Well, Windfall Theatre’s Three Sisters uses a seating arrangement that surrounds the performance. Both companies have done this ort of thing before, but with two shows opening the same week, it’s worth noting the increased intimacy found this month in what will likely be at least three different shows running downtown this month.

The set-up is remarkably comfortable for anyone in the front row, which isn't always the case. In some shows, sitting right next to the center of attention can be kind of uncomfortable for some people. There’s an intermission between Act II and Act III. There are audience chairs on either side of a period couch that gets used quite often. Halfway into the intermission, I noticed a woman in the audience on one end of the couch casually placing a hand on one end of the couch, absentmindedly feeling the texture of the upholstery. The atmosphere here is that comfortable. Until someone in period costuming is sitting in it, the set feels very much like the rest of the theatre.

Intimacy does different things to different productions. The proximity of actors to front row audience in Windfall’s Three Sisters does interesting things with the action. Chekov’s jabs at the leisure class take on a particularly interesting effect in such a small environment, particularly in the first act. Here are wealthy people in period costuming sitting amongst those of us who have come to see them. They sit around talking about the lofty ideals of a good work ethic . . . dreaming of labor they’ve never actually done. And we’re all sitting here 100 years later watching them go on about dreaming of work while doing nothing. Particularly those of us in the front row . . . the feeling of watching people sit around talking about doing work that they’ll never actually do onstage is viscerally annoying . . . a bit like middle sister Masha’s (Amy Hansmann) whistling at the beginning of the act. It’s not unpleasantly annoying, but just grating enough to be funny. People keep talking about work in idle conversation without doing any . . . somewhere around the end of the act, all of the characters adjourn to an unseen place offstage while the servant Anfisa (Gladys Chmeil) picks-up all that they’ve left behind—effectively setting-up for the next scene . . . and it’s difficult not to want to help her out. So much idle talk of work . . . it’s funny in a deeply tragic way—very effective.

Beyond the first act, the startlingly close proximity of actors to audience here amplifies the social end of the story. Quite often, characters are sitting around removed from the action and they end-up blending-in with the rest of us in the audience as Chekhov directs our attention to other characters and other dialogues. The intimate performance space at Village Church Arts ends up feeling like a very large living room with characters who may as well be the next person in the audience. Beyond specifics of period and culture, everyone here comes across like they're anyone you might meet at the theatre. This is a phenomenal cast and all the characters they’re playing feel very real, but the proximity of the actors to the audience amplifies this a great deal. Walking out of the theatre, you know you’ve just seen a tragicomic drama, but there’s something visceral beyond that . . . a feeling that on a certain level you were just watching actual people—vaguely familiar people—live out some really intimate portions of their lives out there. It does something that traditionally staged dramas on bigger stages can't do . . . and I think that's a big part of what makes theatre what it is.

Windfall’s Three Sisters runs through February 27th at Village Church Arts on 130 East Juneau. A comprehensive review of the show will soon run in the Theatre Section of the site.


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