‘Agnes Under the Big Top’ at Forum Theatre by Maddie Gaw

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Forum Theatre’s season debut begins with a tongue-in-cheek pre-show announcement. It acknowledges a sort of cultural sameness that we feel as theatergoers, and as city-dwellers, particularly about cell phone and escalator etiquette.

Jon Jon Johnson, Annie Houston, Edward Christian, Joy Jones, Nora Achrati, and Jason Glass. Photo by Melissa Blackall.
Jon Jon Johnson, Annie Houston, Edward Christian, Joy Jones, Nora Achrati, and Jason Glass. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

It’s as funny as anything in Agnes Under the Big Top, Aditi Brennan Kapil’s tale of disparate immigrants and people who cross each other’s paths in a non-specific American city (New York? Silver Spring? Take your pick). While recalling the storytelling device of the cloying 2005 Best Picture Oscar Winner Crash, Agnes doesn’t coddle us with a simplistic morality tale, nor does it weigh us down with Big Serious Themes.

Which is not to say it doesn’t have ‘Big Serious Themes.’  But Kapil’s writing packs so much character and humor into the play’s 90 minutes that the message feels organic rather than overbearing. And Forum’s production, helmed by Artistic Director Michael Dove, exudes a playful and spirited energy.

Each character in Agnes has created a magical reality for themselves. Bulgarian train conductor Shipkov (Edward Christian) reminisces about his days in the circus, a place that’s “better than life.” His protégé Happy (Jason Glass) hails from India and fully in believes in the power of karma and the long luck and travel lines on his hand, which destine him for greatness. Elsewhere, Ella (Annie Houston) carries on fake conversations with a son who never returns her calls while her caregiver Roza (Nora Achrati) carries on real conversations with city’s bird population. And Ella’s other nurse, Agnes (Joy Jones) has concocted an elaborate myth about her CIA exploits to tell her son back in Liberia.

These illusions take turns both hilarious and heartbreaking. Houston’s increasingly shrill delivery with each report she files on her son’s answering machine peaks with her paranoia about the birds outside her window; “They’re NESTING!” she screams. And Jones’ rapport with her off-stage child is full of a mother’s tough-love exasperation, punctuated with well-timed eye rolls. But the reason Agnes has created a no-nonsense secret agent character? To avoid telling her son that she has terminal cancer. Not that laughs aren’t wrung out of this painful truth—“Agnes thought she knew shit. And then she died,” is the terse summary the natural born storyteller has ascribed herself.

Being a story of invented identities, the design and direction of the piece often take us outside of realistic action. We never see Agnes with an actual phone; rather she orates, to us and to her child. When she kisses the phone as a substitute for him, she’s actually kissing her hand, which is almost a more touching act. Dove is also particularly deft in his staging of multiple flashbacks, signaled not by expository lighting changes but by the arrival of the Busker (Jon Jon Johnson), a mostly silent violinist whose presence immediately turns back the clock in the middle of the unfinished present.

Katie McCreary and Thomas Sowers’ respective designs—lights and sound—combine effectively to show us the heightened reality of this particular city. The show opens with a dead-accurate simulation of subway car rolling by—flashing red warnings and that increasing brightness as the train approaches, complemented by echoey automated announcements and fully alive subwoofers. There is also great interplay between Sowers’ ambient score and Johnson’s live instrumentation. Indeed, Johnson’s violin acts as Foley throughout the piece, creating sirens and birds out of mid-air. Strings of lightbulbs decorate the stage, forming an outline not unlike a circus tent. And Scenic Designer Steven Royal has etched a blue and yellow floor pattern that recalls Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, fully putting us in a dreamy world.

The ensemble is uniformly excellent. Jones has a commanding voice, perfect for narration, but she never loses Agnes’ bright affection and sense of humor. She also, like the rest of her cast mates, has mastered her character’s dialect (not accent, as Agnes argues to Shipkov). Shipkov is arguably the play’s central connecting figure, and Christian, sharing scenes with the largest number of cast members, finds a different dynamic with each relationship while maintaining the continuity of his embittered but passionate character.

Achrati does tremendous work with a role that leaves her mostly unintelligible to the audience, and her chemistry with Christian sells us on their rocky marriage. Glass portrays Happy’s optimism and ambition with such infectious joy that we are amazed that Christian remains opposed to him, even as we grow to understand what Happy’s “luck” really is. Houston, playing the sole non-immigrant character, elicits laughs and breaks hearts as the hauntingly daft and out-of-touch Ella.

Joy Jones, Nora Achrati, and Annie Houston. Photo by Melissa Blackall.
Joy Jones, Nora Achrati, and Annie Houston. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

The only frustrating thing about Agnes is that it feels unresolved–while most of the characters get a complete arc, Shipkov and Roza’s relationship is a tad rushed through, and Happy disappears just when he becomes the most compelling.

Shipkov chastises Happy for his lofty goals and what he sees as overblown confidence. “Everyone wants to be a star,” he laments, recognizing that for the average immigrant in America, there’s no chance in hell. Fortunately for us, each character in Agnes Under the Big Top achieves stardom, leaving their indelible mark on us even as they leave us mid-journey. I’m looking forward to what the rest of Season 10 has in store.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.

Agnes Under the Big Top plays through September 28, 2013 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, Maryland. For tickets, call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006, or purchase them online. You can also buy Pay-What-You-Can tickets at the door for each show.

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Maddie Gaw
Maddie Gaw grew up in suburban Maryland, where she was a frequent audience member at local high school productions before she overcame the shyness that kept her off the stage. She re-located to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College, concentrating in theatre arts after initially abandoning theatre for the much more profitable field of historical studies. A big supporter of new play development, Maddie is proud of her work as Literary Manager for the Downstage Theatre Company, where she gave slots to two plays written within the last five years, and one premiere production. Having graduated in May, Maddie squints into the post-grad distance as she returns to the D.C. area, looking for work in arts administration, or any place that will support her habit as a full-time suffering writer and part-time suffering theatre artist. Her rants and musings outside the purview of reviews can be found on her website, maddieturgy.wordpress.com