The theatergoer’s journey in Repertory Philippines’ “Agnes of God” is an extended meditation of sorts.
You reflect upon the stage stripped to its barest essentials: a small table flanked by two empty chairs, spotless panels soaring up to the ceiling, wisps of smoke evoking an atmosphere of sanctity.
As the play opens, you are then whisked away to the ethereal music of “Kyrie Eleison,” before psychiatrist Martha Livingstone (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo) punctuates the spotlight. Here, she is sent to investigate the case of Agnes, a nun who gave birth to a baby that was later found strangled to death.
Her job is anything but a walk in the park, however. She faces the adamant mother superior Miriam Ruth (Pinky Amador), who doubts the true intent of her investigations. And then there’s Agnes (Rebecca Coates) herself, who stuns Livingstone with her rare blend of fragility and ignorance.
Irony is written all over the cloistral pages of the play. Livingstone’s hardened countenance contrasts with her childhood recollection of happy endings. In another scene, she banters with Ruth on smoking and being a nun; while in yet another scene, her conversation with Agnes leads to the interviewer (psychiatrist) suddenly becoming the interviewee (patient).
Equally striking is how the play brings forth modern-day perceptions to the fore with all the “honesty of unfiltered cigarettes,” as one line goes. In an age where almost everybody else plays God, Ruth laments how saints are born, not made—but considers it fair enough that miracles and innocence are exchanged for sensibility and some money in the bank.
What’s more than fair enough is the eloquent direction of Bart Guingona, who has the audience members gripping their seats for the next plot twist. He is helped in this regard by clever lighting that captures the proverbial beacon from heaven, and a sleek sound design that echoes off the convent walls as the sinister secrets unravel.
The play’s crowning glory, of course, is its holy trinity. Lauchengco-Yulo delivers yet another peerless performance as Livingstone, a role unleashed with an outstanding body of emotions, from calloused investigator to nurturing listener, from atheist accuser to soul-searching savior.
Amador has not lost any of her luster, either. Her Ruth is both defiant and vulnerable, a woman resigned to bury skeletons beneath the folds of her daily habit.
Coates, on the other hand, is a youthful revelation. Her portrayal of Agnes starts off sweet and dreamy-eyed, a young girl totally unprepared for the world and its caprices. She eventually morphs into a blitzkrieg of screams and shrieks as her inner demons torment her, before escaping back to that initial serene demeanor that fades out with the lights.
Theme of escape
Indeed, this is where the play, much like meditation, tackles the theme of escape—Livingstone’s dream to escape the harsh imperfections of adult life; Ruth’s desire to escape the chains of her past; and finally, Agnes’ yearning to escape the “punishments” of a God that appears to break apart her mind and spirit.
You emerge from the experience harboring more questions than answers: Does being different equate to being blessed? Is ignorance really next to virginity? When do you cross the line between being a psychiatrist and being a judge?
But if one should question whether “Agnes of God” lived up to its purpose, the answer is as clear as a celestial clarion call: It is an extended meditation that ultimately makes believers out of us. —CONTRIBUTED
Repertory Philippines’ “Agnes of God” runs until March 12 at Onstage Greenbelt 1. Call 8919999.