Two Sisters and a Piano, by Nilo Cruz, which just closed at AlterTheater, wasn’t notable as a production. (The play, about two sisters—one a writer, one a pianist—under house arrest in Cuba, left unexplored some key questions about the sisters’ relationship—especially why the pianist so often defers to the writer when it was the writer, with her “subversive” stories, who got them imprisoned.) What is notable is AlterTheater’s space. The company describes it as a storefront in downtown San Rafael, and that’s not an exaggeration. From the outside, there’s little to distinguish the theater from the other shops along Fourth Street. With its tall windows, wall-to-wall carpeting and open floor plan, it could easily be mistaken for a shop under construction. But in actually seeing a show there, you realize that theatre, as my companion noted, “can happen anywhere.”
What I especially liked was the way different sidewalk passersby related to the performance. Many didn’t notice a thing, which effectively created two shows: the play itself, and the people-watching outside. Others actually stopped and took the time to peer in, watching both the play and its paying audience, thus complicating the typical dynamics of the performance gaze. At AlterTheater, in short, the performance event does not transpire in a darkened, isolated space; rather, the surrounding community constantly asserts its presence, and the theater welcomes outsiders in an unusually direct way. My companion and I were curious as to whether a performance at night (we saw a matinee) or that incorporated the window more explicitly (in Two Sisters, the window was far stage left, often visible only peripherally) would have a different effect.