Agnes Under The Big Top (Mixed Blood Theater, through March 6) is like the New York City subway on which much of it is set: dark, scary, echoey, pulsing, with sudden flashes of bright and harsh illumination.
Playwright/director Aditi Kapil calls her piece “a tall tale” and that Agnes most certainly is, a fragmented portrayal of (mostly) immigrant New Yorkers as they ride the banging NYC subway. They wait on the platform. “Stay behind the blue line.” They go to menial jobs: Agnes cares for a (presumably) wealthy bed-ridden woman. Or well-paid but unfulfilling work: Shipkov and Happy drive trains for the MTA. Shipkov’s wife, Roza, drinks. They soliloquize – beautifully.
Periodically Agnes flashes back to scenes (always on commuter trains) in Monrovia, Mumbai, Sofia where the characters, flush with anticipation, prepare to make the leap to New York. Where they find… loneliness, bitterness and a city struggling to shake off winter. It’s been some time since I’ve encountered a play with such a vivid – and bleak – feel for New York.
Two motifs energize this play: death and the circus. In the opening scene Agnes is informed that she suffers from late stage cancer and has but weeks to live. Agnes accepts this devastating news with frightening sangfroid. She tells almost no one, and begins a series of heartbreakingly calm phone calls to her son. I kept waiting for this theme to grow. I never took Agnes’s illness seriously (her symptoms seem to consist of an annoying cough, hardly what you would expect from a late stage tumor). It ends up seeming an arty affectation.
The circus motif is much more effectively drawn. Circus imagery is masterfully layered into the play, culminating with a stupendous on-top-of-the-train solo by the gruff Shipkov, ringmaster turned subway trainmaster. I’ll tell you no more: see the play.
The Mixed Blood cast is stellar; Kapil couldn’t ask for better. Shá Cage is luminously beautiful and plays Agnes with pitch-perfect stillness and passion. The accomplished Nathaniel Fuller animates Shipkov with tremendous vitality and depth – this character could easily be limited by his constant profanity. As the aptly nicknamed Happy, Ankit Dogra is a joy – his smile will make you giggle. And Linda Kelsey – wow. She plays the bed-ridden Ella, making phone calls to non-existent numbers, the phone velcro’d to her twisted and frozen hands. Simultaneously frightening and compelling. I enjoyed Virginia Burke as the alcoholic Roza (though this character is perhaps the play’s least satisfying) and also Nick Demeris as the Busker. Excellent work all around.
As is always the case at this theater, the design takes a backseat to the play and acting. Still, the unused stage center back hole – the subway tracks – makes for some awkward staging.
Difficult material to be sure. At least two further productions of Agnes Under The Big Top are scheduled and no doubt Kapil will continue to shape this multi-layered play.
For more information about John Olive please visit his website.