The world premiere of Aditi Brennan Kapil's superb drama offered a timely reflection on the immigrant experience in the United States. Selected in 2008 as a National Endowment for the Arts' Distinguished New Play Development Project, Agnes Under the Big Top, a tall tale continued the mission of Mixed Blood Theatre: "a professional, multi-racial company [that] promotes cultural pluralism and individual equality through artistic excellence, using theater to address artificial barriers that keep people from succeeding in American society." Kapil, a playwright, actor, and director of Bulgarian and Indian descent and a resident artist at Mixed Blood for seventeen years, re-imagined the American "melting pot" as a kind of cultural spectacular, an enormous big top housing people of diverse backgrounds who must perform "tricks"—including lying to loved ones, retreating into silence, and committing fraud—in order to survive. Through effective design, expert acting, and careful attention to voice, Kapil upended romanticized notions of America as a nation of immigrants by scrutinizing the losses, failures, and coping mechanisms of recent immigrants.
Agnes wove together seminal experiences in the lives of four American newcomers. Shipkov (Nathaniel Fuller), a former circus ringmaster, and his wife Roza (Virginia Burke) are Bulgarian immigrants in their forties. He drives a subway train, while she provides in-home care for the aging Ella (Linda Kelsey), a bedridden woman suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis. Agnes (Shá Cage), a Liberian immigrant in her thirties, is also Ella's home-care worker. Agnes has been recently diagnosed with
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terminal cancer and has only weeks to live. Happy (Ankit Dogra), a young man in his twenties from India, works on the subway as Shipkov's trainee. An anonymous Busker (Nick Demeris) moves freely through time and space playing multiple roles, including a musician in whom Agnes confides, a silent Bulgarian clown whom Roza conjures, a pot-smoking Indian friend of Happy's, and a bird who speaks and listens to Agnes, Roza, and Ella. While not all of the characters' paths intersect, they are dramaturgically connected through themes of isolation, alienation, loss, and an unusual attention to sound, voice, and silence.
Scenic designer Andrea Heilman, lighting designer Jeff Bartlett, and sound designer Katharine Horowitz created an intimate yet fragmented mise en scène for Kapil's tale of immigration. Greeted by recorded subway sounds, horizontal flashes of light suggesting train movement, and the live rhythms of a charismatic busker, the audience embarked on a theatrical journey between, across, and about barriers. Variously bright, dim, quiet, cacophonous, tranquil, and bustling, the dynamic environment served as a fitting representation for the confusion and challenges expressed in the diverse voices (and silences) of Kapil's characters.
In addition to the sonic landscape of the train, Kapil further used the sounds of foreign language, vocal outbursts, and even deafening silence to illustrate the interpersonal consequences for Shipkov and Roza as they pursued economic opportunity in America. They remained physically separated throughout the production until Roza, in a shocking act of boldness, boarded Shipkov's train to confront him about her apparent inability or unwillingness to assimilate. She unleashed a jarring tirade in broken English that made plain her profound sense of loss of community, culture, family, and self. Burke's masterfully imperfect vocal delivery reached shouting levels to compensate for the whizzing sounds of passing subway trains. Fuller's frustrated, disbelieving facial expressions were at once hidden and revealed as train lights quickly flashed by and then vanished. The depth and hollowness of the subway tracks, coupled with fast-moving lights and piercing train sounds, emphasized the deep emotional expanse separating Roza and Shipkov within the tumult of their adopted home.
Running parallel to the Bulgarian narrative...