Theater Review: “Agnes Under the Big Top” at Forum Theatre

Strong performances and a compelling narrative bolster this thoughtful drama about immigrants in America.
Photograph by Melissa Blackall Photography.
Photograph by Melissa Blackall Photography.

“You’re not beautiful here,” Roza tells her husband bitingly. It’s a tense moment,
one that evokes just one of the difficulties that immigrants who travel to America
in search of fortune can face. In other words, relative bigshots like Roza (Nora Achrati) and her ringmaster husband, Shipkov (Edward Christian), might be glamorous circus performers in Bulgaria—but here, Shipkov operates a Metro
car and Roza changes an elderly woman’s sheets and finds herself driven to drink and
talk to birds.

Agnes Under the Big Top, the season opener from Forum Theatre, doesn’t shy away from these weighty themes
and not-quite-storybook conclusions. But at its heart, the mildly fantastical play
from
Aditi Brennan Kapil is a comedy. Each character is dealing with difficult circumstances—Agnes (Joy Jones), who came to America from Liberia, has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer;
Happy (Jason Glass), Shipkov’s coworker at the Metro, is facing a challenging moral dilemma—but the
play catches them at their lighter moments as well. Agnes and Shipkov share a drink
as the ringmaster comically reenacts scenes from his circus days; Happy and a friend
(Jon Jon Johnson) posture over who’s the better joke-teller. Each story is laced with sadness, but
though
Agnes is definitely pulling at the heartstrings, the gesture doesn’t feel manipulative.

This is partially on account of some hefty performances.
Annie Houston plays Ella, a particularly
disagreeable old woman who is bedridden and caustic, but
the possibility that she could get taken advantage of leads to
one of the show’s most
nerve-racking scenes, courtesy of Houston’s pitiable portrayal.
Jones’s portrait of
Agnes is complex and dynamic, allowing the audience to get to
know a very layered
woman in a limited amount of time. And Glass gives the
appropriately nicknamed Happy an infectious optimism, though
it’s also bravado laced with uncertainty.

Designer
Steven Royal and director
Michael Dove set
Agnes largely within the confines of a subway, an idea effectively evoked by an artfully
presented subway car, along with the familiar sound effects and lighting. (Cast member
Johnson playing the violin for dollars before the show begins is a nice touch.)
Agnes isn’t without its problems; the play feels like it has several false endings, yet
still doesn’t wrap up Happy’s story to satisfaction. But the work transports the audience
to that subway car, and doesn’t let us out feeling the same. Stand clear of the closing
doors.

Agnes Under the Big Top
runs through September 28 at Round House Silver Spring. Running time is about 95 minutes,
with no intermission. Tickets (now all pay-what-you-can due to the company’s new policy)
are available via Forum’s website.

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