November 03, 2012

Ecce agnus Dei qui tollit peccatum mundi

On Thursday night, I attended the opening performance of John Pielmeyer's 1979 play Agnes of God, the final production of 9th Hour Theatre Company's 2012 season, at the Great Canadian Theatre Company's Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre.1

Sister Agnes (Gabrielle Lazarovitz), a naïve young novice in a Catholic convent, was discovered in her cell, unconscious and covered in blood after giving birth to a baby. The baby was strangled and left in a wastebasket under Agnes' bed. She claims she has no recollection of giving birth—she did not know she was even pregnant (nor, apparently, did any of the other sisters), or even how she became so.

The court has appointed a psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone (Anna Lewis), to assess Agnes' mental state and determine whether she is fit to stand trial for manslaughter. Mother Superior Miriam Ruth (Janet Rice) is determined to protect Agnes from the influence of the chain-smoking, atheist doctor. She believes Agnes is a complete innocent: she was raised in an isolated house, sheltered from worldly things, before entering the convent at age 17 when her mother died. Miriam believes it is plausible that Agnes has been "touched by God."

Dr. Livingstone, on the other hand, wants to protect Agnes from the influence of the church; an embittered ex-Catholic, she is not certain whether Miriam is looking out for Agnes' best interests first, or the convent's reputation. Beginning with psychoanalysis followed by hypnotism, Livingstone begins to reveal the mystery of whether Agnes is responsible for her baby's death.

9th Hour's mandate is to use the dramatic arts to tell stories that explore questions about faith and spirituality, and Agnes of God certainly does that. This is a play of contrasts: between belief and unbelief (Livingstone the atheist vs. Miriam the faithful, if somewhat modernistic, Catholic), miracles and science (the possibility of a miraculous virgin birth vs. "hysterical parthenogensis"), faith and logic (during one of their truces, Miriam laments to Livingstone that what they've gained in the latter, they've lost in the former), and saints and sinners (neither woman is sure which one Agnes really is). Though Agnes of God has been billed as being about the nature of faith and love, it seems to me that it is more properly about the question of the place of faith in the modern world. I am definitely not sure that I buy into this play's premise that they are antithetical.

Agnes is staged in the GCTC's studio theatre rather than the mainstage (where, coincidentally, it was also opening night for another play featuring an all-female cast). The studio seats about 75, and the seats are arranged around three sides of the stage. This is a big change from the traditional proscenium theatres I have attended in the past: it's a lot more intimate and immersive. It also makes the stage feel somewhat like a courtroom, which seems suitable for this particular work. On the other hand, Anna Lewis' chain-smoking Martha goes through about a dozen herbal cigarettes, and in such a small room, the constant smoky smell is off-putting at times. (It was too much for one attendee.) To be fair, we were warned.

The set is minimalist, consisting of a back wall as well as two gables to define the "room" in which the action takes place. The props are three chairs and three wastebaskets. Stage lights shine either through the gable structures or dirty gels, casting banded or dappled shadows on the stage floor. Together with Stephen Lafond's eerie score (performed by cellist Martain Pearson), the overall effect is quite pleasantly surreal.

All three cast members are on stage for the entire production—no mean feat for a 90-minute play with no intermission. Janet Rice's performance stands out: she is completely convincing as the Mother Superior who appears to be soft-spoken, pleasant, and benevolent at the start, but as the story progresses we realize she's hard as nails and has her own secrets to guard. Gabrielle Lazarovitz, who has a beautiful singing voice for Agnes' Latin chanting, does very well portraying the beatific and seemingly innocent Sister Agnes. But Anna Lewis has the hardest job, with only a couple of short breaks in which she is not engaged in dialogue or monologue (her character also serves as the narrator). She is certainly up to the challenge of such an extended stage presence. As the play progresses, the antagonism between Livingstone and Miriam escalates. The dialogue suggests that there's a lot of bitterness and pent-up rage in the psychiatrist: after all, she's a lapsed Catholic who hates nuns by her own admission. Lewis will have to try harder to convince me. She isn't angry enough. But she does have a few very good moments, for example, when Livingstone suddenly realizes the effect her cigarette smoking is having on Agnes during hypnosis.

Despite a few flaws, this production of Agnes of God is competent, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Director Marc-Andre Charron, the cast, and the crew have put together something they can be proud of. Agnes of God runs until November 10.

Footnote

1 In the interests of "full disclosure," I was part of the chorus for 9th Hour's inaugural production, "Telling the Story," back in 2010.

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