Agnes Under the Big Top
The action begins with sharp flashes (via Tyler Micoleau's strobe lighting) and driving, percussive hip hop via Busker (Sam Ghosh). The main set features a subway platform and train interior, as imaginatively designed by Frank Alberino. Agnes (Francesca Choy-Kee) is from Liberia and she has just been informed that she has cancer and precious little time on this plant. Her young son is in Africa and Agnes tries to telephone him. She also provides home care for elderly Ella (Laura Esterman), who has crippling arthritis and is confined to a chair/bed. The other health care person tending Ella is the Bulgarian Roza (Gergana Mellin) who communicates most often with birds. Roza's husband is Shipkov (Michael Cullen), currently a train driver but formerly a circus ringmaster. Shipkov, also Bulgarian, is abrasive and unpleasant to Roza, and he has had more than one "jumper" while guiding the subway train. Happy (Eshan Bay), a youthful man from India, provides counterpoint to Shipkov. If Shipkov plays the pessimistic cynic, Happy is the optimistic energy source.
Eric Ting, directing with a great touch, moves the six member cast quickly around the rectangular configuration of the Stage II space as, every so often, contemporary computer signs announce a change in scene. Hence, the audience realizes the locale has moved, for example, from subway car to Ella's apartment.
The play is rich in imagery and implication and draws a clear focus upon human life and either its potential or lack of promise. Happy, for one, thinks he will make it if he can react rapidly, decisively, and capitalize upon opportunity. Shipkov, a man who holds many a story he wishes to tell, has a darker vision of life. Ella cannot move and her crippling physical condition facilitates bitterness. Roza, graceful and, in her own way, physically pretty, is scared; and she does not speak English. Busker's musical beat provides linkage.
Agnes and her plight become the center of this play. Choy-Kee, so impressive at Yale Repertory Theatre just a few months ago in Bossa Nova, is sympathetic and enduring. Her face lights up with joy, but this seems always cut short by a coughing fitand the bleakest of realities. She is in struggle as she attempts to inform her son of her terminal situation.
Agnes Under the Big Top is existential. Each character operates individually but most share a common universe. To many of them, the world is now a difficult, hostile space. It breeds loneliness and subsequent despair. Agnes might wish for miracle survival but she understands that her life will end all too soon.
The decision to bring this production to Stage II is wise. Long Wharf's second performance area is wide but not deep. Thus, the actors are oftentimes facing toward theatergoers; there isn't room for any separation. Katie Down provides sound design and she and Sam Ghosh collaborate on composition. Music and sound are key components and facilitate connection.
Agnes Under the Big Top continues at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II in New Haven through April 3rd. For tickets, call (203) 787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.
- Fred Sokol