Dying of cancer and lost in a country far from home, Agnes wants nothing more than to take flight like a bird and escape—to go home to Africa, to see her son grow up, to find a story with a happy ending. Reality, however, isn’t going to let that happen.
Staged with an inventive flair and well-acted by a veteran-packed cast, Agnes Under the Big Top presents a quick ride through the immigrant experience via the connected lives of four American newcomers. Creator Aditi Brennan Kapil crafts an imaginative space for the actors to play in, but her script doesn’t fly as high as the rest of the elements.
Agnes (Sha Cage) hails from Liberia and came to make life better for her family back in Africa. That gets derailed right at the top of the show, as she discovers she is suffering from terminal cancer. Roza (Virginia Burke) and Shipkov (Nathaniel Fuller) are former Bulgarian circus performers who won the green-card lottery but now no longer even talk to each other. Meanwhile, Happy (Ankit Dogra) has left India to make his fortune in America, though he seems to be having some troubles with his karma.
Other characters connect like the twisting lines of the trains that crisscross through the nameless city. One is Ella (Linda Kelsey), a bedridden woman who Agnes and Roza care for, while another is the Busker (Nick Demeris), who not only works in the stations the others inhabit but takes on the roles of friends from the old countries, which show us the happier times for each of the main characters before their move to the promised land.
That their warm expectations meet the cold reality of life in America is no surprise, but how they cope becomes the real drive of the show. Some retreat: Roza rarely speaks, except to the birds. Others, like Happy, pretend that everything is just as they had planned. Still, in a play packed with metaphor and stories, I needed to be taken further from the familiar, where the big-top dreams of the title can play themselves out for the audience.
Carrying the day are the performers, who fully sell themselves in each role. Cage is central to the play, and she turns in another terrific performance as the lost Agnes searching for whatever meaning she can find in her suddenly truncated life. She rarely rages outwardly; instead, her silence toward her employer or the tall tales she spins for her son say far more than outward anger. Fuller gives Shipkov a thick layer of cynical crust that, when peeled away, shows us another layer of crust, but one that has a bit more warmth.
The roles for Burke and Kelsey offer different challenges. Burke spends most of her time silent or speaking Bulgarian, but her performance tells us volumes about her lost and sad character. Kelsey spends the entire 90-minute play bedridden as Ella, with only her voice to carry the character. Like Shipkov, Ella’s hostility hides a lot of pain, and Kelsey nails all of it, creating sympathy for a character who is just as lost as the immigrants.
Rounding out the company are two local newcomers. In a cast of characters hiding their true selves, Happy has pushed his reality the deepest, retaining his cheerful optimism from his life in India to the United States. It isn’t until deep into the play that his troubles come into focus. At that point, Dogra reaches far into the superficial character we’ve seen up to this point and gives Happy the extra dimensions he needs. Demeris by himself rounds out the cast, as he plays the rest of the world, from the silent subway busker in America to key characters in each of the homelands, from a silent Bulgarian clown to an overactive Indian friend to a laid-back listener gently playing a beat on a plastic gas can while Agnes shares her great dreams.
All of this is unified by a clever circus-like staging and a set (by Andrea Heilman) that connects the various worlds our characters inhabit by way of a train car and track. All of the elements are there in Agnes Under the Big Top—it just needs a little push for it to take full flight.
Originally posted on City Pages, 23 February 2001.