Feb 20, 2017

[Theater] Agnes of God (Repertory Philippines)

As is our habit, Tobie and I have booked tickets for all 3 plays of the regular season of Repertory Philippines. The first show for the year, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was quite the delightful comedy and not what I expected as a beginning for this season. But of course Repertory Philippines continues to explore many different concepts and themes and so not all of their plays are light as that one.

Their second play for the year, Agnes of God was a lot heavier in comparison. We kind of expected this given it was a play about a nun on trial but we had avoided doing any more in-depth research into the plot in order to avoid potential spoilers about the story.

So we came into the experience knowing  very little about the show and thus hopefully more open to where the story may bring us. And I think the end result was certainly a thoughtful one as this production had a lot of things that it wanted to say. And I think the cast managed to get the bulk of their message across.

Synopsis: Agnes of God is a play written by John Pielmeier and the show had also been adapted into a movie in 1985. The Repertory Philippines staging was directed by Bart Guingona and ran from February 17 to March 12, 2017 at the Greenbelt OnStage Theater.

We start with Dr. Martha Livingstone (Mechu Lauchengco-Yulo) addressing the audience as she talks about her love for Greta Garbo movies. She wishes that there were alternate endings for many of her more tragic movies that end with Garbo's character getting a happier outcome. This sets the tone of the play at large as we have Dr Livingstone sent to determine if one Sister Agnes (Becca Coates) is insane or not as she has been arrested for manslaughter in the form of her killing her baby.

But as per her Mother Superior Miriam Ruth (Pinky Amador), Agnes has no memory of the night of the baby's birth and speedy death and so there's no point in speaking to Agnes. What starts out as an objective effort to assess the mental state of the young girl eventually turns into a more involved effort to genuinely help the girl with her many issues and deeper problems. But with Mother Miriam eager to end things and Dr. Livingstone becoming more personally involved in the case, the two come to blows as they argue about Agnes.

What I Liked: The show only has three characters but all three are quite remarkable actresses who did a phenomenal job of bringing this show to leave. Each character is complex with their respective quirks and idiosyncrasies and the cast does an amazing job of conveying each character's struggle across to the audience. The biggest surprise is probably the young Becca Coates who is critical to the show's success and she contributes her part excellently. She's certainly a young talent to watch.

The set design was rather austere but absolutely perfect for the story being told. The use of panels as walls is of course an old stage trick but the decision to layer the panels in such a way to create a sense of depth with so much drama was phenomenal. And they further enhanced this already interesting set design by playing with the lights to create different moods and shadows that all contributed to how this story was told.

What Could Have Been Better: The story in itself is rather heavy-handed with the whole religious conflict and I'm not sure if that's a fault of the writing or more how the show was directed. Bart has a tendency to end up with some rather passionate or even angry plays about various subjects and so this production felt at among all those others. And so it's hard to ignore his potential role in how the show ended up.

And as much as the staging was beautiful as a whole, there seemed to be a challenge in terms of figuring out how best to make use of the space. Towards the end the characters have a long and drawn out argument that includes them walking to and fro across the stage whether from left to ride or deeper in and back to the front. You can tell that this was by design and they wanted to convey something in terms of how the argument was progressing but the actual result felt a bit more complicated than it did metaphorical or informative.

TL;DR: Agnes of God is quite the striking production and is worth seeing just for the acting  alone. Sure the religious angle to things can be a bit tiring on its own, but the 3 women who drive this show are still worth seeing in this context. Thus the show gets a good 3.5 moments when you think the baby may have been a miracle out of a possible 5.

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