“Agnes Under the Big Top” -- A Tent of Discontent—and Hope

By Amy J. Barry

Immigrants come here in search of the lofty American Dream—a promise of a better life, the opportunity to rise above one’s station, a fresh, clean start.

In Agnes Under the Big Top, a new play by Aditi Brennan Kapil on Stage II at Long Wharf Theatre, the dream is illusive at best, disillusioning at worst.

Although an ensemble piece, the six characters stand very much alone; their sense of isolation pervades the production, even while directly conversing with one another.

Through the actors’ strong and solid performances, under the deft direction of Eric Ting, Kapil’s script thoughtfully makes the point that the very nature of the pursuit of the American Dream creates a conflict between individualism and community—sometimes requiring a hardening and shutting down, in order to survive and get ahead.

The play mostly takes place in the subway—we are told it could be in any U.S. city—although it feels like New York. Set, lighting and sound designers Frank Alberino, Tyler Micoleau, and Katie Down, respectively, have joined forces to create the mesmerizing, alternating dark and glaringly bright, fast-paced, loud underground world—in which a rapper frenetically dances and disappears into the night, trains barrel through, people both collide and wordlessly pass each other by.

It also takes place in the apartment of the unhappy, bedridden Ella (Laura Esterman) —the only character who remains “above ground” and yet is trapped in a prison of her own making—constantly angry at Agnes (Francesca Choy-Kee) her caretaker, for opening the window to let in some fresh air, the sound of singing birds.

Agnes, a Liberian immigrant, has just been told that she has terminal cancer. A lovely gentle person, she begins to do some soul-searching, regularly calling her son back home, imploring him to do his school work and reassuring him of her love with metaphors of soaring birds.  Ella also calls her estranged adult son daily, but he never answers or calls back.

In their uniquely symbiotic relationship, Ella refers to Agnes as “The African” —never imagining that she is so ill—seeing her as a one-dimensional non-person, there to serve her needs. Agnes sees Ella as a frustrating, self-centered old woman and treats her as such.

Meanwhile, we meet Shipkov (Michael Cullen), a former Bulgarian circus master, who now drives a subway train—the ringmaster of the underground—deciding people’s fates by whether he attempts to stop for someone about to jump.  In a trapeze artist analogy, he says:

“It takes a special kind of person to leap into nothingness and believe they’re flying,”

Cullen’s performance is intense and authentic—dripping sarcasm, smart, outrageous and utterly pissed off at his circumstances, he insults his wife Roza (Gergana Mellin), who drunkenly wanders the underground, lost and miserable, her dreams dashed. Also a former circus performer, Roza felt important in Bulgaria and invisible in America.

Eshan Bay is charming and pleasant as Happy, a young ambitious Indian immigrant who still believes in the “rock star” dream. Shipkov is his employer, teaching him to operate the trains, making fun of his youthful enthusiasm. But eventually, Happy is also pushed into a loss of innocence, desperate for money, regretfully running a phone scam on Ella—one of the most poignant scenes in the play.

Sam Ghosh rounds out the ensemble as Busker, “every city’s” hip rapper/DJ.

Addressing so many serious, uncomfortable issues, despite some comic relief, it’s hard to absorb the multi-layered 100-minute intermission-less production—it almost calls out for a break—but then, the thread of the unconventional, arc-less storyline might be hard to pick up in a second act.

Exiting the theater, I heard a couple commenting on how depressing the performance was, and I had to agree—and disagree. Agnes and her impending death ultimately becomes a catalyst for change in all of the characters—they soften, they reach out—even Shipkov—and in taking off their armor, they allow themselves to experience even small epiphanies, We are left with a sense of personal redemption, forgiveness, and hope, for the characters, and therefore, ourselves.

Agnes Under the Big Top runs through April 3 at Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. For tickets visit www.longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.

In the spirit of the play’s immigration theme, Long Wharf is partnering with IRIS—Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services—in a collection drive at the theater (through April 3) for home supplies for refugee families the organization is setting up in 30 new apartments in New Haven. For info on items needed, visit www.irisct.org or call 203-562-2095.

This review appeared in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers March 24, 2011 and online at Zip06.com.


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