If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
LONG WHARF OFFERS OFF-BROADWAY MUSICAL
Only a few performances remain for the world premiere play, “Agnes Under the Big Top” by Aditi Brennan Kapil. The contemporary drama plays at the Long Wharf theatre through this weekend. Given the diverse reactions of both critics and theatre patrons to this uneven, difficult but innovative work, theatergoers may want to find out for themselves. It will not be a waste of time.
Agnes (Francesca Choy-Kee) is one of four immigrants experiencing their version of the American dream in “Agnes Under the Big Top”. A Liberian native who has come to the states to work as a caregiver to a bedridden old woman, Agnes discovers in the first (of 24) short scenes that she has terminal cancer. From there we meet Bulgarian subway conductor Shipkov (Michael Cullen) and his unhappy wife Roza (Gergana Mellin) who were former circus performers in their country. Happy (Eshan Bay) is from India and has just started a new job as Shipkov’s assistant. The lone American, Ella (a luminous Laura Esterman), is looked after by both Agnes and Roza. Wheelchair bound and friendless, Ella spends most of the day trying to reach her estranged son by phone.
The play begins in fits and starts, pausing here, reflecting there and then, occasionally, shifting back in time to give some history about various characters. Delivered in snippets, some scenes grow tiresome but others explode with raw power. Late in the play Agnes has a long, sad phone monologue with her young son that is heartbreaking and played without an ounce of sentimentality by a valiant Miss Choy-Kee. Another later scene has Happy (Mr. Bay in a marvelous stage debut) giving a sales pitch to Ella who is overjoyed at finally making connection with the outside world. A longtime theatre pro, Miss Esterman is the standout in a superior cast of actors.
Displaying rare directorial magic, Eric Ting glides and slides the various pieces of Kapil’s puzzle of a play with admirable agility. He is aided by Frank Alberino’s authentic subway setting and the expert sound design provided by Katie Down. The play ultimately tends to promise more than it delivers with an ending that seems to be hopeful but delivers something a little less. “Agnes Under the Big Top”, however, welcomes a new voice to the American theatre scene that is very much worth watching.
“Agnes Under the Big Top” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through Sunday, April 3. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.