Audiences take a leap of faith along with scribe Aditi Brennan Kapil in her wonderful crazy quilt of a play “Agnes Under the Big Top,” receiving its world preem at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater. The result is a tough and tender play and a production that is as graceful and evocative as trapeze artists flying though air with the greatest of ease.
It could have been an awful fall. Metaphors and symbols — especially those of the circus, subways and aviary — abound. Scenes jump globally in time and place. And the narrative is seemingly disconnected and strained with its fractured story lines depicting isolated souls. But under the deft and fluid direction of helmer Eric Ting and a terrific ensemble, the connections this talented new writer have created come together and resonate in deeply moving and unexpected ways.
At the heart of this “tall tale” is Agnes (a luminous Francesca Choy-Kee), a Liberian immigrant and one of two health care workers to the demanding Ella (Laura Esterman). Ella is a an elderly, rheumatoid-afflected woman who favors the silent ineptness of her other helper, Roza (Gergana Mellin), a withdrawn Bulgarian who only talks to birds. Roza’s sour husband Shipkov (Michael Cullen), a former ringmaster in his native country, is a subway driver who has more than his share of deadly “jumpers.” That’s just bad karma, says his trainee, aptly named Happy (Eshan Bay, in an impressive professional stage debut), an Indian youth filled with new-world hustle.
At play’s beginning, Agnes finds she is dying of cancer and struggles to find a way to tell her young son in Africa by phone, as she contemplates her last days in this stranger-filled world.
Communication and inter-connectedness is at the heart of the Kapil’s work of immigrant isolation, re-invention and even reincarnation.
There’s Ella, played with unsentimental truth by Esterman, who leaves long messages on her son’s answering machine, longing for a response — only to feel a bond with a stranger’s accidental call. There’s Happy, a telemarketer from India, who calls home for help when he arrives in the U.S., ultimately finding his fate and fortune in a random act.
Coincidence/karma threads throughout, until the characters find their separate peace together. Not the least of these is Shipkov and his wife. Cullen plays the transit driver with hard-edged gusto while Mellin’s Roza is a heart-breaker, portraying a fragile beauty who finds her specialness not so easily translated.
Kapil weaves a gentle spell with short scenes that move as suddenly and arbitrarily as the speeding unseen trains on Frank J. Alberino’s versatile set. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting and Katie Down’s sound also contribute greatly to the sense of energy and danger in the under- and above-ground worlds. Sam Ghosh’s percussive busker also gives the play an urban and urgent pulse.
But just below the surface, there’s beauty, love and purpose. With the lightly magical style of a fable, Kapil allows her characters to finally find their rightful place. And in so doing, she finds her own as well.