Review: Agnes Under the Big Top, a tall tale

Worlds collide in Mixed Blood Theatre’s latest production.

Shipkov is a washed-up Bulgarian ringmaster who barely recognizes his unhappy wife, Roza, anymore. Happy is a former call-center employee from India who firmly believes in karma and optimism. Agnes is a single mother from Liberia who was recently diagnosed with cancer. Ella is a bitter bed-ridden old woman who prefers talking to answering machines to human beings. Busker is a whistling mime/clown/street performer who seems to be everywhere at once and yet no where at the same time. What on earth could these people have in common? America. And roles in Aditi Brennan Kapil’s new play, Agnes Under the Big Top, a tall tale.

A playwright, actor, and director of Bulgarian and Indian descent (who was raised in Sweden), Kapil knows a thing or two about the collision of cultures. In Agnes, a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, Kapil brings her multidimensional characters to life and ties their varied stories together through two locations: the subway and Ella’s bedroom. It’s there that the audience learns about each character’s past—where they came from, who they used to be, who they left behind—and why they’re in America today.

The production is intimate in nature, from the stage—surrounded on both sides by the audience—to its rhythm. Throughout the 90-minute run, monologues, interactions, tall tales, regrets, memories, and phone calls draw the audience in, making them feel as though they are personally interacting with the characters. And what characters they are—played by experienced cast members (including Guthrie Theater regulars Virginia Burke, as Roza, and Nathaniel Fuller, as Shipkov; and Sha Cage, as Agnes, a Twin Cities theater regular and national spoken-word artist), each individual comes to life through the use of accents, foreign languages, inflection, facial expressions, and emotion.

Just like the circus has the power to transform seemingly ordinary animals and tasks into magical feats, Agnes Under the Big Top takes outwardly run-of-the-mill individuals and transforms them into poignant metaphors, each applicable in his or her own way to the audience members watching in awe.

On stage through March 6, 2011