>AGNES OF GOD by luna-id

>reviewed by musa fazal

>date: 22 aug 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: the substation
>rating: ***

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.

>>>>>Like a virgin

AGNES OF GOD tells the story of a young, simple-minded nun whose newborn child is found dead in a wastebasket in her room. Sister Agnes claims to have no memory of the conception or the birth so a psychiatrist - Dr Martha Livingston (there may be some reference in the name to the real Dr Livingston, the missing African explorer and missionary whose discovery made famous that timeless phrase "Dr Livingston, I presume") - is appointed by the court to determine whether Sister Agnes is fit to stand trial for the murder of the baby. The mystery of it all is that the nuns lead a sequestered life and so it seems there are no men who could possibly have been the father other than old Father Metineau (who never gets a chance to defend himself, poor man).

Dr Livingston - a lapsed Catholic and a female version of the X-files cigarette-smoking man - is determined to get to the bottom of this. She meets her match in the convent's mother superior, Mother Miriam Ruth, a nun with a dodgy past, who seems determined to protect the fragility of Sister Agnes and the story she spins of her immaculate conception. But this is not your typical whodunnit. AGNES is not concerned with the solution to the gruesome murder; it merely uses the suspense generated as the backdrop for a much wider debate between science and rationality on one hand, and religious faith on the other.

As the story progresses therefore, we learn that Mother Miriam has got it into her head that Sister Agnes is something of a saint. But if Agnes really was a saint, and her child really was conceived by God, why would God have it murdered? Which leads us on to that troubling question of why God creates us only to let us die. As Sister Agnes puts it, "I'm not a mistake, I'm here aren't I? How can I be a mistake if I'm really here? God doesn't make mistakes…"

>>'A perfectly watchable play, but not an out-of-body experience.'

Does AGNES have the answer to this life-transforming question? Not at all. But Mother Miriam explains why: "You'll never find the answers to everything," she says, "One and one is two, yes, but that leads to four and then to eight and soon to infinity…"

Luna-id's AGNES OF GOD was a reasonable effort employing good production techniques and a strong cast. Christina Sergeant and Karen Tan are not Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft (who play the same roles in the 1985 movie version by Norman Jewison) but they held their own and turned in respectable performances as the shrink and mother nun respectively. Newcomer Grace Wan was somewhat more disappointing. Her Agnes was so cloying she was almost a torment to listen to.

The set was quite spectacular. Long wooden poles stretched out majestically from floor to the ceiling, and were painted in at the base to create the illusion of hanging in mid-air. (Of course God only knows what bamboo poles have to do with Pielmeier's script - is there bamboo in Montreal? - but never mind). Director Samantha Scott-Blackhall also did a good job of keeping the scenes in the play seamless, and borrowed effectively from the movie version's heavy play on light in her design. Candles were cleverly used, and together with the bamboo poles in the background, made for interesting shadows that played across the set.

What disappoints most about the play in the end is the story. Debates between the forces of science and religion need a robust airing, today more than ever, but AGNES OF GOD doesn't seem to do justice to the light-year leaps forward that that debate has taken in the past decade. This play may have been groundbreaking in its day (AGNES OF GOD won the 1979 Great American Play Contest), but set against today's ethical dilemmas, it seems withered and weak.

Overall, a perfectly watchable play, but not an out-of-body experience, notwithstanding the "Exorcist" type scenes with Sister Agnes under hypnosis. If you really must, go rent the movie. The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is stunning, and Meg Tilly does a good Agnes (she got an Oscar nomination for this role and a Golden Globe win). That way, when you get to the really dry bits of dialogue, you can fast forward. It's not really worth your time otherwise.