Aditi Brennan Kapil’s "Agnes Under the Big Top," at Long Wharf


By Tom Nissley

Watching Aditi Brennan Kapil’s "Agnes under the Big Top" at LongWharf reminded me of an exercise in human systems I experienced at a conference where three hundred participants in a large room were each given a ball of yarn, which we tied to our wrists, and then were instructed to throw the ball in any direction to someone with whom we were connected in some way. Then we threw it again, and each ball was thrown several more times, until there was an impenetrable web of yarn throughout the room surrounding and enfolding all those humans sticking up inside it. "Now," said the leader, "take the little ball in your hand and start to rewind it, stepping through and over and around whatever..."

It’s only at the end of the play that the strange collection of characters coalesce into a managed image that links them all together. By then each has been loved - or if you will admired - for his or her own separate identity as a bizarre someone.

Happy (Eshan Bay), for instance, is a transplant from Mumbai, with a charming disposition and a not completely ethical approach to borrowing a credit card. Bay is wonderful in the role, which involved calling Ella (Laura Esterman) to sell her international dialing long before he came to America, and then contacting her again in order to speed up some personal economic development after he lived here. It is Ella whose ball of yarn ties the group together - she’s fully bedridden, wrestling with diabetes and despair, talking over and over into her phone with a son who long ago stopped answering. Ella has two health aides - one is Agnes (Francesca Choy-Kee), and the other Roza (Gergana Mellin).

Agnes, we learn early on, has cancer that has progressed all the way. She has only a few weeks left to live, and must find a way to close down her dreams (which included coming to America from Liberia to make good money to help her son Eugene) and find a satisfying way to say goodbye to Eugene, who is still in Liberia. It’s a theme that repeats during the play, of course, and that is beautifully pulled together in Agnes’s final phone call home, when she encourages Eugene to watch the birds up on the wire outside their house, and be reminded always that she is among them, loving him.

How Roza and her husband Shipkov (Michael Cullen) - who was once the famous ringmaster of a Bulgarian circus, and who came to America because he won a lottery for green cards, are connected to Happy and Agnes and linked to Ella, all sorts itself out in the short course of the play. It’s often with the help of a third party, the Busker, played beautifully by Sam Ghosh. The big top images, which help Agnes figure out where she is and how she will fly away, come from Shipkov’s amazing memories of life under the circus tent.

The direction, by Eric Ting, is precise and brilliant. The sets, which move seamlessly from subway cars to subway platforms, to Ella’s apartment, and the many vignettes from the past, have been handsomely worked by Frank Alberino. Lighting by Tyler Micoleau and sound by Katie Down and Sam Ghosh are significant parts of this superb production.

Agnes Under the Big Top plays through April 3, on Stage II.

Tickets and information at 203-787-4282   

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