Douglas College performs ‘Agnes Under the Big Top: A Tall Tale’
By Adam Tatelman, Senior Columnist
The gulf between script and performance is invariably wide, and seeing something played before your eyes is very different than just reading about it. Like the circus, perhaps you have to experience it in order to fully appreciate it.
Upon reading Aditi Kapil’s Agnes Under the Big Top, I found it to be a fractured, chronologically confused play. Yet Douglas College theatre director Deborah Neville and her team have created a compelling and ironic coherence in this brutally honest portrayal of the immigrant experience, while showing us so many of the barriers that keep displaced people isolated from one another and the wider world.
Agnes (Elise Wilson) came to America to provide for her son, who remains in Liberia. She cannot bring herself to tell him that she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Co-worker Roza (Jessica Kabesh) feels so out of place in America that she speaks only to the birds at her window. Her husband Shipkov (David Sitar) spends all of his time conducting the subway trains while reminiscing about his glory days as ringmaster of the Bulgarian circus. He instructs Happy (Brendan Saltel), an optimistic young man from Mumbai who may be less innocent than he appears.
All of the characters are connected in some way to Ella (Emily Brown), the insufferably ill woman Agnes and Roza care for. Through it all, the guitar-strumming Busker (Michael Bernard) takes the form of half a dozen other characters both past and present, visible and invisible, acting as ringmaster to the audience as he sets each scene.
Each character tells their own story within the philosophical context of the play. Much of their dialogue is soliloquy, and they are visually segregated from one another on stage. Ella, the only non-immigrant, remains bedridden for the duration, looking down (both literally and figuratively) on the others. Shipkov and Happy populate the train car below. Everything between is neutral space, representing the streets, dumpy apartments, and waiting rooms.
The set design compiles all of the dingiest aspects of this environment, tying them together with a muted palette. There are projections shone onto the back wall, showing stilted subtitles for Roza’s Bulgarian dialogue, interspersed with occasional avian imagery. I do not feel this backdrop was necessary as the performances and lighting convey the setting well enough already and the moving train facilitates transitions between both space and time.
There is a lot of sterling dialect work in Agnes. Saltel, Sitar, Wilson, and Kabesh never stray toward the surely tempting realm of caricature in their work with Indian, Bulgarian, and Liberian accents, which is no mean feat for such young actors to get this far into character. Brown weaves weariness into Ella’s deformed, bird claw-like hands, and Bernard’s Busker makes a much-needed comedic turn as a mute Chaplin-esque clown in one of Shipkov’s memories. Silence, after all, is a language all its own, and it’s one that many characters in this play are all too familiar with.
It’s best to see this tall tale for yourself and learn if it might just be a little too real. Agnes Under the Big Top: A Tall Tale will run through March 20 in the Studio Theatre on the fourth floor of the Douglas College New Westminster campus. Tickets are $12, or $10 for students, and can be purchased through Massey Theatre.