Stories of Isolation in an Urban Circus
By SYLVIANE GOLD
“Optimists are stupid people,” snaps a caustic subway motorman to his congenitally cheerful trainee — not coincidentally nicknamed Happy — in Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Agnes Under the Big Top.”
First, there’s a terrific cast. Eshan Bay, a college senior making his professional debut as Happy, exudes charisma from every pore. Michael Cullen bites into the motorman’s rants with bitter glee. The train carries passengers played by Francesca Choy-Kee, the rare actress who can be soulful and funny at the same time, and Gergana Mellin, as compelling when silent as when nattering at birds or unleashing a stream of Bulgarian invective.
Yes, you read that right. Bulgarian. Ms. Kapil, who came to the United States — Minnesota, to be specific — for college, grew up in Sweden, the child of a Bulgarian mother and an Indian father. This remarkable background gives her an unparalleled vantage point for a play about the psychological dislocation that attends the physical dislocation of life as an immigrant. “Agnes Under the Big Top” is rich in feeling, wide in scope, teeming with poetry and sprinkled with Bulgarian.
The Bulgarians in “Agnes” are the motorman, Shipkov, and his wife, Roza (Ms. Mellin), who left behind the fading circus that had given shape to their lives for who-knows-what in America. Happy came from India with big dreams that cannot quite be accommodated in his subterranean job. And in the title role, Ms. Choy-Kee plays a rueful, hopeful, heartbreaking Liberian who came to America to earn money to provide for her young son, whom she has not seen in 10 years. The other major character — who hasn’t come from somewhere else and who doesn’t ride the subway — is Ella, an aging shut-in cared for by Roza and Agnes in alternating shifts.
Ms. Kapil’s story can be read on the most literal level as a study in loneliness, some of it self-imposed. Ella, played by Laura Esterman, is so cranky she has alienated her son and her two put-upon helpers as well. Even the birds outside her window annoy her. But Shipkov’s subway — given a stark grimness by the set designer, Frank Alberino, and reverberating with Katie Down’s clangorous aural landscape — is more than a subway. The American city it serves is never identified, and we quickly learn that the next stop may be Liberia or Bulgaria or India. Or it could be the terminal, as in terminal illness.
In much the same way, the Shipkovs’ circus is more than a circus — Ms. Kapil’s big top isreally big, and it shelters us all. The birds that so exasperate Ella seem also to live in Africa. And they have magical abilities, including a working knowledge of Bulgarian. The playwright has put many accents on the stage, but her favorite language would seem to be metaphor.
Eric Ting, Long Wharf’s associate artistic director, has directed this ambitious, layered play without slighting either Ms. Kapil’s astringency or her flights of fancy. The production trundles along the slick track of her prose like a rush-hour express, aided by a percussive score by Ms. Down and Sam Ghosh (who also contributes a few brief turns as a performer) and an evocative lighting scheme by Tyler Micoleau. At the end of its swift 100 minutes, you will know you got on the right train.