26 February 2017

The music in 'Agnes of God'

Becca Coates has the voice of an angel — fitting for the innocent, music-loving nun she plays; but it’s the veteran voices of Pinky Amador and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo that make Repertory Philippines’ Agnes of God sing and soar.

Psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingston (Lauchgenco-Yulo) is appointed by the court to examine Agnes (Coates), a 21-year-old novice whose newborn — which she claims to have been fathered by God — is found dead in a wastebasket. At the convent, the doctor is greeted by Mother Superior Miriam Ruth (Amador), and what follows is a long argument on science, religion, and the best way to protect Agnes from manslaughter charges.

For a straight play, John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God has an amazing sense of rhythm. It moves from Dr. Livingston delivering a monologue, to a pair of characters in conversation (whether in quick-fire repartee, humorous banter, or calm give-and-take), to all three sharing a scene, then back to Dr. Livingston addressing the audience, restarting the cycle. Every sequence unlocks a mystery as it builds a fresh one.

Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo delivers a monologue.

The exchanges between Dr. Livingston and Mother Miriam are a particular pleasure to listen to. Amador adopts an aged, rough-around-the-edges timbre — quite a counterpoint to Lauchengco-Yulo’s clinical, sometimes cynical tone. The two throw their dialogues with a toughness inherent in their characters. Both of them convinced of their logic; both of them convincing. They are not, however, a clear-cut yin and yang as you might expect in the beginning. They believe in the power of the mind, but disagree on how to wield it.

On the other hand, Coates still has to find her mark, especially in the quiet parts of the show. But how she shines during its grittier moments; that despite the predictable revelation of her child’s father, she manages to send shivers down the spine.

From the opening down to the last lines, there is a sustained, disconcerting intensity, thanks to the actors but more importantly to John Batalla’s eloquent lighting and Jethro Joaquin’s creeping soundscape. The drama makes great use of pauses, as well — even the audience’ silence, as they strain to hear the next word, adds to the tension in the theater.

Joey Mendoza’s set is another mute element in this production. On stage are but a coffee table, two chairs, and nine cascading panels. “You can’t anchor it in a specific location or time, and it’s easily accessible to flashbacks,” explains technical and assistant stage director Jamie Wilson. Above all else, it proves that discussions on faith, religious or otherwise, don’t pick a location or time — it is always relevant.

Rep’s Agnes of God, directed by Bart Guingona, runs until March 12, 2017 at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Will it convert you? Not a chance. Will it shake your beliefs? That’s highly doubtful. What it will do is tease you; because Agnes of God is essentially a thriller. You’ll have a plot and trains of thought to follow. Constantly you’ll ask, Where is this going? What’s her comeback to that? Whose truth will be broken?

—Originally published on GIST

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