‘Agnes Under the Big Top’

‘The Huddled Masses’
Immigrants cope with their
unrealized American dreams
By Ed Huyck, City Pages

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.

Sha Cage stars in ‘Agnes Under the Big Top’

Sha Cage starring in ‘Agnes Under the Big Top, a tall tale’
A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere
written & directed by Aditi Brennan Kapil
featuring Virginia Burke, Nick Demeris, Ankit Dogra,
Nathaniel Fuller and Linda Kelsey

Mixed Blood Theatre
February 18 – March 6, 2011
Wednesdays – Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.
Sundays at 3:00 p.m.

You will want to see this funny and powerful new work! It’s the story of immigrants in America today, and how their lives intersect under the figurative Big Top. A city subway station is the central point for all the action. A Liberian home care worker, an itinerant busker, a Bulgarian ringmaster and his wife, along with an Indian call center escapee, discover and redefine themselves through the telling of this magical fable. For more information, you can link to Mixed Blood Theatre.

‘Sha Cage steps into ‘Ruined”

by Rohan Preston, Star Tribune 

To be an understudy or alternate in a show is like wearing clothes made for someone else’s body. The contours of the performance — from gestures to blocking — have been made for you.

“If you are a replacement performer, you have to replicate the performance of the person whose role you’re taking over,” said Jack Reuler, artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre. “Your job is to capture the essence of something in a template not of your own making.”

By all accounts, that is what Sha Cage is doing in Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” the gut-wrenching play about women finding sanctuary in a brothel in a war zone in Congo.

Cage took over the role of Josephine, the brothel owner’s assistant, for the last three weeks of the run of the show, which closes this weekend at Mixed Blood. She replaced Erika Ratcliff, a Chicago-based dynamo who had pre-arranged to only do half the run of “Ruined”; she left in another production in Baltimore.

It is true that “when you move into an understudy part, you have to model what’s been done,” said Cage. “But with this, I don’t feel like I’ve been crippled by that. [Director] Aditi [Kapil] has given me license to make it my own.”

The mother of seven-month-old boy, Cage attended rehearsals for the show, learning alongside Ratcliff the blocking and nuances of the part. And she had put-in rehearsals with the cast that helped her get her legs quickly.

Cast-member Aimee Bryant, who has one of the most evocative scenes in the drama, said that Cage has moved seamlessly into the production.

“Any new person coming into a show changes the whole rhythm,” she said. “Sometimes its for the better or worse. Sometimes it’s just different. The trick is to do somebody’s work in your own body. Sha is doing a great job.”

Comparisons are inevitable in a situation where an understudy or a replacement actor enters the picture. Cage and Ratcliff are of different heights.

“Erika is a lot taller than Sha and is broader in her shoulders,” said Bryant. “She was more intimidating than Sha, very forward and aggressive. Sha is more laid back but she has another type of intensity.”

Replacements are commonplace in theater. “Ruined” stars Regina Marie Williams as Mama Nadi in the same stage where she earlier this year played a slave woman in Carlyle Brown’s “Pure Confidence.” On Monday, the New York production of that drama won three Audelco Awards, including for director Marion McClinton and “Ruined” cast-member Gavin Lawrence.

Williams was supposed to go travel with “Pure Confidence” when it transferred to an off-Broadway playhouse in the spring. But she was cast in “Caroline, or Change” at the Guthrie Theater. Another actor, Christiana Clark, took over the role.

Originally posted on Star Tribune on 19 November 2009.

Sha Cage featured in Mixed Blood’s production of ‘RUINED’

sha cage - wings - uche (500pxl)Sha Cage featured in Mixed Blood’s production of ‘RUINED’

2009 PULITZER PRIZE Winner For Drama
2009 OBIE AWARD for Best New American Play
2009 LUCILLE LORTEL AWARD for Outstanding Play
2009 DRAMA DESK AWARD for Outstanding Play

“…strong and absorbing.” New York Times
“…a crackling thriller, with humor, plot twists, and lots of humanity.” NY1
“…richly textured characters, driven by powerful narrative momentum, pulsating music, and heartfelt compassion” Variety

Mama Nadi, the definitive unlikely heroine, is a shrewd businesswoman and apolitical opportunist in an African land torn apart by civil war. In her makeshift oasis in the Ituri rain forest, miners, government-backed militia, and their opposing rebel forces must leave their differences at the door.

Entertainment and escape await guests at Mama Nadi’s, and joy, hope and love coexist in the most unexpected of places. But is she protecting or profiting from the women she shelters? And how far will she go to survive? For more information: http://mixedblood.com