An Undredone "Agnes"
By Geary Danihy
Most textbooks for neophyte dramatists address the idea of “conflict” as a necessary part of the craft. What is conflict? Well, as Stuart Spencer points out in “The Playwright’s Guidebook,” conflict is basically one person wanting something and another person dead set on preventing him or her from obtaining it. No conflict, Spencer notes, no drama.
That’s essentially the problem with Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Agnes Under the Big Top,” which recently premiered at Long Wharf Theatre under the spirited direction of Eric Ting. “Agnes” is many things, and some of them are very good, but it remains to be seen whether or not the play qualifies as drama, for though Kapil has succeeded in creating some memorable characters who interact with each other, they are like trains that pass in the night. No character has an investment in any other character, whether for good or ill (save for a Bulgarian couple), and without that it’s difficult to be drawn into what is going on.
In essence, what Kapil presents us with are a series of set-pieces, each with its own title flashed on two rectangular screens that serve as announcement boards in a subway, where much of the action takes place. All of the characters, except for Ella (Laura Esterman) a bed-ridden, WASPish lady, are immigrants who have brought their tattered dreams to America’s shores only to learn that no matter where you go, there you are.
Oddly enough, though program notes make much of the characters’ immigrant status, it really has little bearing on what goes on during the play. Yes, they work at menial jobs – a subway engineer and his trainee; homecare providers – but America as the great meat grinder just isn’t evident, for whatever problems these people have are either those created by fate or by themselves.
Early in the evening we learn that Agnes (Francesca Choy-Kee), a young Liberian woman who is one of Ella’s healthcare providers, has terminal cancer – she has but months to live. Will she come to some type of acceptance of her fate through her interaction with the other characters? That was obviously on Kapil’s mind, but it just doesn’t pan out.
Perhaps Ella, dubbed “The Wooden Queen,” will, through Agnes’s guidance, eventually come to accept the fact that her son will never call her because of who she is. She does eventually lighten up, but it’s difficult to see what Agnes has to do with this or, for that matter, what the title character has to do with whatever reconciliation occurs between Shipkov (Michael Cullen), the subway engineer who was once a circus ring master in his native Bulgaria, and his wife, Roza (Gergana Mellin), who also provides care for Ella.
Then there’s Happy (Eshan Bay), a young man from India who believes that great things are in store for him and that his status as Shipkov’s trainee is just a steppingstone on the road to success. Under Shipkov’s tutelage he receives life-lessons liberally spiced with profanity – to what end remains to be seen.
The underdone nature of “Agnes” extends to the metaphors Kapil plays with – there are starlings – immigrants themselves – that represent…freedom? There’s Ella’s window, outside of which the starlings congregate, that Agnes insists must be open to let in…the fresh air of a renewed life? There is the circus and its trapeze artist who must let go to be…free? There’s the subway itself, underground transportation that carries its passengers to…well, I’m not sure where, but it’s certainly a dark, noisy ride made more cacophonous by the Busker (Sam Ghosh), who provides some hip-hop hipness to the goings on, though to what purpose is anyone’s guess.
That watching this pastiche of tenuously connected scenes and ponderous messages is as enjoyable as it is redounds to the credit of the actors. Choy-Kee is a delight to watch, what with her balletic grace and large, expressive eyes, and her Agnes is continuously engaging and often moving – to whatever degree we care about the character it is because of the life Choy-Kee brings to her, not the lines she has been given.
The same is true for Cullen’s Shipkov – sullen and world-weary -- and Bay’s Happy – naïve and sincere, and Esterman brings an ethereal quality to her Ella that transcends the stock “bitter woman” character as written. One wonders what this ensemble might have been capable of if they had been given something more dramatic to work with, for the three are all rise above what has been written for them. The same, alas, cannot be said for Mellin, though it is scarcely her fault. For a good part of the play she is mute (or in a drunken coma) and in a rather confusing and essentially superfluous flashback she gets to deliver her lines in Bulgarian. We eventually learn the nature of her problem, but by then whatever investment we might have made in her character has all but vanished.
In reviewing a play it’s a fool’s game to wonder what might have been. All one can deal with is what’s up there on the boards, and in the case of “Agnes Under the Big Top,” what we have is an inchoate drama that would be well served by a bit more workshopping.
“Agnes Under the Big Top” runs through Sunday, April 3. For tickets or more information call 203-787=4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.
This review originally ran in The Norwalk Citizen-News.