“Agnes Under the Big Top” is doughnut theater: a mushy thing with a hole in the middle.
Aditi Brennan Kapil’s underdeveloped drama, tying together the stories of immigrants in America in a bow of sere lyricism, divvies up 100 long minutes among six characters. While Forum Theatre’s set is dominated by the subway car on which two of them work, the piece itself goes nowhere.
Forum, ensconced in Round House Theatre’s second stage on Colesville Road in Silver Spring, is launching with “Agnes” a radical new admission program: Show up at the door and pay whatever you want, a dollar or a hundred. The goodwill a company earns with such a generous open-wallet policy, however, is pushed to the back of the mind once the lights go down — especially if the proceedings don’t coalesce meaningfully.
The play, statically staged by Forum’s artistic director, Michael Dove, muses enigmatically on what’s been gained and relinquished by a gallery of the recently arrived on our shores from India (Jason Glass), Bulgaria (Edward Christian and Nora Achrati) and Liberia (Joy Jones, portraying the Agnes of the title). A pursuit of Kapil’s focus is a vain struggle: something to do with terminally ill Agnes in the employ of a bedridden elderly woman (Annie Houston) who waits for a phone call from her inattentive son and moans when Agnes forgets to close the bedroom window. See, she hates the incessant birdsong, at least as it’s mimicked on the violin of a roving busker (Jon Jon Johnson).
Kapil’s program bio notes that she grew up in Sweden as a child of Bulgarian and Indian descent; she now lives in Minnesota. That kind of wonderful global pedigree would certainly help to inform a singular dramatic perspective. But a playwright needs more than observational tools; he or she also has to have translational abilities to turn a personal point of view into one that links up in some urgent way with the experience of others.
“Agnes Under the Big Top” makes some playful attempts at an integrated story. Agnes rides the subway train conducted by Christian’s Shipkov, who works with Glass’s Happy, who perpetrates a phone scam at the expense of Houston’s Ella, who also employs Achrati’s Roza. Among other poetic conceits, the playwright invokes circus imagery; hence the title. But the linkages feel incidental and their randomness leaves you cold.
As Agnes, Jones conveys an attractive lightness of being, and as a result, she is the production’s chief asset. The other actors acquit themselves honorably. Steven Royal’s set, which divides the audience in half, placing Shipkov’s subway car against one wall and Ella’s bed against the opposite, is a fair physical approximation of the evening’s gentle sense of unresolved odds and ends.
By Aditi Brennan Kapil. Directed by Michael Dove. Set, Steven Royal; lighting, Katie McCreary; costumes, Chelsey Schuller; dramaturg, Laura Esti Miller; sound, Thomas Sowers; assistant director, Jecamiah Ybanez. About 1 hour 40 minutes. Through Sept. 28 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Visit www.forum-theatre.com or call 800-838-3006.