Friday, February 24, 2017

Agnes of God (Repertory Philippines)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_of_God
♣♣♣♣/♣♣♣♣♣

A novice nun is in trial for manslaughter and a psychiatrist is sent by the court to determine her sanity. Sister Agnes (Becca Coates) wakes up in her room with a newborn baby in the trash bin, strangled by the umbilical cord. Having no recollection of having given birth, she faces one of two possible verdicts: prison, if she is declared as mentally sound; or asylum, if she proves to be mentally disturbed. Dr. Martha Livingstone (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo) believes that a third option exists: acquittal. If they can prove that the young woman was molested and can find the culprit, that is. Mother Miriam Ruth (Pinky Amador) does not want any more suffering for the young lady and would rather believe in miraculous virgin conception. Science and religion clash to provide a plausible explanation, characterized by constant bickering between the two women. Both claim to want what is best for young Agnes, but does she really want or need their help?

The set is minimal with just two chairs and a small round coffee table at the center. As such, you don’t really have a lot of distractions to snatch your attention away from the actors. Livingstone is a chain-smoker and the actress consumes how many cigarette sticks in the play’s entirety. That’s part of the role, and the repercussions of such in terms of her health is none of our business. In any case, the constant vision of smoke floating upwards creates a rather hypnotic effect. Coupled with the lighting onstage, it lends an extra layer of mystery to the production.

The rapport that Amador and Lauchengco-Yulo share is electric. They do not end up pulling each other’s hair, rolling on the ground, and taking their shirts off. This is not ladies night at Hooters. Instead, they debate on the merits of their arguments through verbal spats that are neither kilometric nor dragging. Voices are raised only to be dropped again one notch before the situation spirals out of control. Even so, witnessing these two ladies’ attempts to destroy one another’s beliefs through words is one of the most intense vocal altercations I’ve seen onstage. Intense. That can’t be any more appropriate to describe this emotionally charged exchange of lines. Perhaps the intimate scene the theater provides further amplifies this. Onscreen, the generous use of close-ups wouldn’t have sufficed.

Coates is such a sweetheart. Her voice is indeed angelic, although one must also wonder where the line is drawn between her real voice and the recording, if ever one is actually played. She has her intense moments, too, most of them in the hypnosis scenes. The rest can be dismissed as naïve musings ranging from plain juvenile to enigmatic. She succeeds in tickling your curiosity, as if challenging you to either prove or disprove her innocence. This is her story after all but in the end you realize that Livingstone is the focus of the narrative once in a while. In a way, it is her story, too. With two opposing system of beliefs at play, a beautiful contrast is achieved.

What fuels this piece is intrigue. Is Sister Agnes half-innocent half-cuckoo or is she just a manipulative sinner hiding under the robe of a nun? This is the controversial question during the first half of the play, even though the truth eventually comes out during the second half. Still, it’s fun to speculate. Theater pieces that deal with the sensitive issue of religion seem to have formed their very own subgenre onstage. Perhaps it owes everything to the provocative nature of the theme. Such subject matter also opens a lot of doors for profound and thought-provoking discourse about philosophy of religion. Of course, having a devout believer and a doubting Thomas verbally square off contributes a lot to its appeal.

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