It is not easy to bring a new play to life. The journey of the challenging Agnes Under the Big Top, written by Aditi Brennan Kapil, a playwright, actress and director of Bulgarian and Indian descent, who was raised in Sweden and currently living in Minneapolis, began on December 11, 2008 in a Reading at the Lark Play Development Center in New York. For the next three years, as part of a rolling world premiere, it traveled to Workshops in New York, Philadelphia, Smolyan, Bulgaria, D.C., a full production at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, and is now in a full-fledged production at Long Wharf II through April 3! All along the way, Ms. Kapil was shaping the work, a sculptor with words.

Under the excellent direction of Eric Ting, Long Wharf’s Associate Artistic Director, this adventurous piece that takes place mostly in a subway station, introduces us to a cast with an international background, two of whom speak Bulgarian. Francesca Choy-Kee, whom we enjoyed in the Yale Rep’s Bossa Nova, is impressive here as Agnes, a young woman, who is the link between segments of the plot.  An immigrant from Liberia –thus her lilting accent- she has just learned that she is terminally ill with cancer. This surprisingly does not stop her from attending to Ella, an elderly sick woman confined to a wheel chair, acted with great nuance by Laura Esterman. Nicknamed the Wooden Queen, because she does not say please or thank you, Ella is constantly on the phone with Frederick, whom we find out is her son, whose telephone number is disconnected.

The other part of the equation takes place in the Subway. There, Shipkov, a bitterly cynical, cursing Bulgarian former Circus Master, runs the subway train. Played by Michael Cullen, who creates a very strong character, he is heartbroken and crazed; since coming to the America, his wife, Roza, the remarkable Bulgarian actress Gergana Mellin, does not speak, and also drinks too much. At present he is training a young Indian man, the very cheerful Happy, portrayed in a sweet debut by Eshan Bay, a student at NYU  (My alma mater) and the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.     

Roza also takes care of Ella and is therefore Agnes’ friend. Between scenes, whose titles are lit above the stage- Agnes calls home to talk to her son, Eugene. Cautioning him to work hard and do his homework, she finally tells him that she is joining a secret society where she will not be able to contact him. Bird imagery is a constant theme. Agnes believes that she will become a bird and fly through the sky; the world needs maintenance, she says. The ending is sad, but because it happens offstage does not seem to really touch us.

Katie Down’s Sound is rockingly terrific as is her Music Composition with Sam Ghosh, who also plays the Busker. (We could not understand Ghosh when he was speaking.)

Under the Big Top through April 3 at LWII. 

This review was originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO

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