I did not enjoy the circus growing up. The attractions smelled of woodchips and perspiration, the animals looked too large for their cages, and God only knows, I’d think to myself, when that so-called tent-pole is going to give. There seemed to be so much at stake. Written by Aditi Brennan Kapil and directed by Michael Dove, Agnes Under the Big Top is a somber but powerful look into the lives of five people whose days have diverged from their dreams, and while the stakes are just as high, this tent is worth stepping into.
The evening opens, spotlight on Agnes (Joy Jones), who has just learned her cancer is, in fact, terminal. She returns to work for the sharp-tongued and bed-ridden Ella (Annie Houston) alongside Roza (Nora Acharati), a Bulgarian immigrant of few words, more apt to communicate with the birds. Roza’s husband, Shipkov (Edward Christian), is a foul-mouthed ex-ring man and subway conductor tasked with training Happy (Jason Glass), a young American transplant eager to make his fortune in the big city. These characters collide, both physically and philosophically, while striving toward the same goal: to hold on to their place in the world, whether imagined, lost, or short-lived. The city’s birds also play a role, as does the character-morphing Jon Jon Johnson, also providing the city’s music by way of violin.
Much of Agnes is set beneath the city, within the subway system. The measured combination of light and sound (Katie McCreary, Thomas Sowers) turn the space into a station from the production’s opening moments. The set is elegant and solid (Steven Royal), and while never unfolded as a circus tent outright, smartly crafted pieces, from the pillars, to the top of the subway car, remind the audience that the characters are all in the midst of their own feats.
Under Dove’s direction, Kapil’s beautiful script paints a stirring portrait of those caught in the gears of life. Though their stories are severe, whether tragic or fearless, they’re told and woven together with the effortlessness of a conversation with a good friend. You’re given the opportunity to know these characters. Maybe you are these characters. Maybe you secretly pray to never become these characters. But they’re in front of you, confessing, and it’s damn near impossible to turn away.
Agnes Under the Big Top
Closes September 28, 2013
Round House Theatre – Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: Name Your Price or
$20 reserved seats
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Agnes does more than speak to the personal plights of these characters, though. It also addresses the realities of the proverbial American Dream. Is it possible to get what you pay for in America? Is it possible to become who you are? Is this all, in fact, just a circus? The piece may seek to ask more questions than it can address, leaving a handful of peculiarities hanging.
However, Agnes pulls at the heart-strings without tearing too hard. Quietly, earnestly, the down-and-out city-dwellers are forced to confront their identities, and the realities of their circumstances. That most of the action takes place just beyond the city of their dreams – across subway cables, over phone lines, and atop tight ropes – is among the most powerful statements the piece makes.
Upon leaving, I was struck by a lyric from a modern Iron and Wine folk song, a song dreamier and lovelier than my childhood circus memories: “The trapeze act was wonderful, but never meant to last.”
Agnes Under the Big Top is wonderful, too. I encourage you to step right up and see it. It won’t be here for long.
Agnes Under the Big Top by Aditi Brennan Kapil . Directed by Michael Dove . Featuring Joy Jones, Annie Houston, Nora Achrati, Edward Christian, Jon Jon Johnson, and Jason Glass. Scenic design: Steven Royal . Lighting design: Katie McCreary .Costume design . Chelsey Schuller . Sound design: Thomas Sowers . Properties design: Patti Kalil . Dramaturg: Laura Esti Miller . Stage management: Maggie Clifton . Assistant direction: Jecamiah Ybanez . Produced by Forum Theatre . Reviewed by Sarah Ameigh.