An Urgent and Compassionate "Agnes"

by David A. Rosenberg

“You ever look at the face of a trapeze artist? They keep their eyes open, they do what they need to do, they move forward, next act, keep moving. . . . The trap’s not the big brass . . . ring, it’s the next step, it’s get to the other side, just moving through space, just staying alive!”

That speech, said near the beginning of “Agnes Under the Big Top,” is a metaphor not just for an urgent and compassionate new play but its author, Aditi Brennan Kapil. The Long Wharf production (100 minutes, no intermission) introduces a vibrant, promising talent who, admittedly, has bitten off more than she can comfortably chew but whose wide reach for getting “to the other side” marks her as a writer to be watched.

“Agnes” is part realistic, part abstract, with great dollops of poetic symbolism thrown in. It’s an uneasy mixture, constrained by choppy, undeveloped scenes. But there’s undeniable talent here, a willingness to fly and a gift for language.

Kapil tells the “tall tale” of Agnes, a Liberian woman come to the U.S. seeking work and money to support her son Eugene back home. She learns at the start that she has cancer and it is “”terminal,” a word that beats like a bird’s wings throughout the play. Actually, birds also figure prominently in the evening as both objects of admiration and harbingers of death and resurrection.

What transpires after this dire diagnosis is a series of vignettes about culturally diverse people trying to realize the American Dream. Specifically, we have the foul-mouthed Bulgarian, Shipkov, his mousy wife, Roza, and the aptly named Indian, Happy.

All have come seeking their fortune and finding community. Shipkov and Happy work on the subway, while Roza is a health-care worker, as is Agnes. Both women attend to bedridden, demanding Ella, the play’s one non-immigrant.

Also in the mix is the scruffy Busker who plays many roles (subway musician, announcers, etc.).

This is not a well-made play: the plot, such as it is, is vague and diffuse. But, like the film “Babel,” it attempts to fuse various strands through some sort of catalyst. Here, that center is Ella.

Querulous and irritable, Ella makes futile attempts to telephone her estranged son, Frederick. In the play’s most affecting and developed scene (one that should stand as a model for what is lacking elsewhere), Ella is contacted by Happy who has randomly chosen her number while outsourced in Mumbai. (The play is peppered with flashbacks to Liberia, Bulgaria and India.)

It helps, of course, that the scene is so well acted by the great Laura Esterman as Ella and newcomer Eshan Bay as Happy. Theirs is a long-distance comradeship filled with possibilities, though unrealized in this fragmented work.

Under Eric Ting’s fluid but tightly disciplined directing, all the acting is commendable. Francesca Choy-Kee is a dynamic Agnes, while Gergana Mellin injects pathos into Roza and Sam Ghosh is a mercurial Busker. Michael Cullen is strong as the imperious Shipkov, though he’s saddled with a distasteful character.           

Frank Alberino’s sets and Tyler Micoleau’s lighting help the play’s sense of inevitability, while Jessica Wegener Shay’s drab costumes and Katie Down’s sound design also impart a world of characters caught between hope and doom. And a special nod to dialect coach Amy Stoller.

The “Big Top” of the title refers not merely to a circus background (Shipkov was a ringmaster) but to the big tent idea of immigrants melted into the American pot. If playwright Kapil hasn’t quite reached her goal, neither has the country. Yet the work goes on, and must be attended to.

 

This review by Dave Rosenberg appeared in The Hour, Sunday, March 13, 2011

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