BWW Reviews: Forum Theatre Launches 'Forum for All' with Poetic AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP
Forum Theatre, which is the resident company at Round House Theatre's Silver Spring stage, launches its daringly democratic "Forum for Everyone" pay-what-you-can initiative with AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP, a timely portrait of the immigrant experience in the USA. In this play by Aditi Brennan Kapil, a playwright of Bulgarian and Indian descent raised in Sweden and now residing in Minnesota, Forum gives us a fluid, at times mystical, at times cryptic, portrait of an America where the almighty dollar and the American way of life are viewed in the clear light of day. In the process the raggedness of their iconography becomes apparent.
AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP brings us a brief, intimate look at the lives of a handful of immigrants who do the kind of work the larger society renders invisible: home health care aids for the elderly, subway car operators on automated trains, and buskers playing folkloric music from home. The play is a kind of poetic montage of narratives linked serendipitously by circumstance or fate or Karma, depending on one's perspective.
The stories of these 5 immigrants from Liberia, India, and Bulgaria slowly unwind and entwine over the course of 90 minutes, and we see the sorrow there beneath the grand illusion of an America whose streets are still paved with gold. Truth and illusion collide in this portrayal of new Americans reeling under in the grim reality of lost identity and dead-end jobs.
The title character, Agnes--played with magical yearning by Joy Jones--has immigrated to the US from Liberia, leaving her young son behind with his grandmother. In this country, she tells herself she can earn many times the income available to her in Liberia, but she misses her young son and speaks to him often by cell phone, admonishing him to do his schoolwork and obey his grandmother, while teasing him with tales of life's plenty in the USA. Not incidentally, the West African country of Liberia figures prominently in the history of the US, as the country to which the American Colonization Society and later Back-to-Africa Movement leader Marcus Garvey urged free black Americans to repatriate themselves. It is no small irony that Liberian émigré Agnes has returned to the USA, once again doing the thankless work of tending to America's wealthy. Her peevish, elderly employer, Ella, is a lonely, dying invalid; indeed, Agnes herself, we learn, is dying of cancer, and she struggles to find poetic closure to her transatlantic sojourn for both herself and her young son.
Agnes's relief caregiver is fellow immigrant Roza, a one-time stunning circus beauty from Bulgaria who has descended into silence and alcoholism. Nora Achrati plays Roza with understated despair, and we see the terrible price she has paid for leaving her old life behind. Roza's bitterly comic and charmingly fatalistic husband Shipkov, once a renowned circus ringmaster, slogs away as a subway car operator on a self-driving train. Having literally "won the lottery" back in Bulgaria for work papers in the USA, Ed Chrisian as Shipkov expertly guides the audience through the disappointment of it all with profane, incisive wit tinged with the gallows humor for which Eastern Europe is known. Chrisian's Shipkov is the grim realist of the play, whose spot-on and brilliantly funny insights into the flaws of the humanscape of his new country provide much of the bittersweet laughter of the production.
Meanwhile, Shipkov is training his polar opposite in temperament, a young Indian immigrant nicknamed "Happy" who is determined to "make it" in the USA, and spends his time waxing optimistic about one mysterious and doubtlessly sketchy deal or another that will finally make him rich. Jason Glass imbues Happy with a perfect pitch of innocent optimism on a collision course with nihilistic reality. Happy, we learn from a flashback, had actually prank-called the elderly patient Ella long distance from India years back when he and a friend dared each other to test their best "jokes" on overseas strangers. One of their jokes supplies perhaps the best line of the night: "What did Gandhi say when asked what he thought of Western Civilization? 'That would be a good idea, said Gandhi.'" Now in the US, Happy has scored a job as a subway operator trainee, though his dreams continue to loft high above the subway underground. Happy, for whom Karma is a very serious business, finally succumbs to temptation and, retrieving the prank-call list from his pocket, again phones the lonely and talkative Ella, who insists he sell her a fictitious new phone service. Happy takes down her credit card information and subsequently disappears.