“Agnes Under the Big Top”
By Irene Backalenick
“Agnes Under the Big Top,” the disturbing, confusing contemporary drama now on Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II, is as fast, choppy and jolting as a subway ride. Not surprising, since subways dominate this big city tale. In fact, the subway could be considered the lead character.
Playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil creates a series of quick sound bites, as scene after scene tumbles forth—a style as suited for Facebook as for the stage.
Though the delivery is confusing, the story is very much today’s story. Kapil takes on the plight of immigrants to this country—in particular, from Liberia, India, Bulgaria. They come from their mother countries bright, eager, and hopeful, but they are soon beaten down by the American Experience, as they take on menial jobs as subway workers or health care workers.
“Agnes” has lofty ambitions, as lofty as its metaphors. The Bulgarian husband/wife team are former circus performers, who speak of their colleagues, the trapeze artists, and of their abilities to fly through the air. Agnes, the Liberian woman also speaks of air, space, birds in flight. Dying of cancer, she sends a message to her son, assuring him she will soar with the birds, watching from on high—a message, ultimately, of hope. “Agnes” implies that one can take risks, soar into unknown territories, just keep going.
Certainly provocative ideas, but does the play work? “Agnes” is indeed a challenge, both for the company and the audience. The fact is that there is no arc to the story, no forward movement (despite the subway trains). We are left where we began—confused, irritated, and standing on the platform. And the actors’ rapid-fire lines (in varied accents) are difficult to follow, so that individual speeches are often lost. (The dialogue in pure Bulgarian may be the clearest exchange in the play.)
On the plus side, however, is the fine work of director, cast, and designers. Ting offers brilliant, innovative staging, backed by his design team—Frank Alberino (set), Tyler Micoleau (lighting), and Katie Down (sound). One actually believes that trains roar through, as characters wait on the platform. And the cast, too, rises above the fumble of lines to succeed in other ways, through facial and body movements. Eshan Bay, Francesca Choy-Kee, Michael Cullen, Laura Esterman, Sam Ghosh, and Gergana Mellin all manage to give moving, believable performances.
All told, Kapil is a provocative new voice and “Agnes” is a worthy effort, flawed though it is. One should watch with interest the future efforts of playwright Kapil.
This review also appears in the Connecticut Post and on nytheaterscene.com