Review: 'Agnes of God' gloriously returns to Rep stage

Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 23 2017 11:12 AM

Rebecca Coates in the title role in ‘Agnes of God’ is a sure bet for next year’s theater awards.Jeeves de Veyra

MANILA — Now this is how you mark a golden year!

The 50th anniversary celebrations of Repertory Philippines kicked into high gear with “Agnes of God,” which the theater company first presented back in 1983 with its founder, the late Zeneida Amador, as the mother superior, and now artistic director emeritus Baby Barredo, as the court-appointed psychiatrist and self-confessed agnostic. It also marked the stage debut of a young Pinky Amador in the title role, for which she got her first acting award.

More than 30 years later, Amador now plays her aunt’s role, while Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo makes a triumphant Rep comeback that reminds viewers that she is more than a musical theater star. One of the company’s most outstanding alumnus Bart Guingona directed this new staging, while another Repper, Fordham University professor Joey Mendoza, created the stunning set.

Continuing the Rep tradition of honing new actors, 19-year-old Rebecca Faith Coates graduates from roles in Rep’s Children’s Theater and gives a breakthrough performance that heralds the arrival of an exciting and talented artist, building on the promise she displayed as a juvenile cancer patient in the musical “Dani Girl.”

In “Agnes of God,” Rep reminds audiences why it has lasted this long. As the country’s leading English-language theater company, it has over the years brought the best plays to local audiences and staged these with dependable professionalism and dedication.

Award-winning dramas like “Agnes of God” used to be standard season fare for Rep and finally this year, Rep seems to be experiencing a much-awaited artistic renaissance. After its star-studded production of the Tony-winning comedy “Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike,” expect the standing ovations to continue with this heavy drama.

“Agnes of God” is on the surface a religious-tinged murder mystery. It opens with the facts of the case: a dead baby was discovered in a wastebasket strangled with its umbilical cord. The mother, a young nun with the voice of an angel, can’t remember what happened. The court appoints a psychiatrist, who has left the Catholic church, to investigate what happened. Making her task even more difficult is mother superior Miriam Ruth who believes that Agnes may be blessed.

In his director’s notes, Guingona pointed out that when “Agnes of God” was written, “it was fashionable to question the ‘certainties’ of science, particularly if psychiatric skepticism in a world that has grown cynical, surgical and disdainful of mysticism and spirituality.”

“It remains relevant today even as the times have swung back towards conservative, faith-based values… that argue for the necessity of unquestioning belief systems, much of which is the foundation for today’s defense of dogma,” he added.

Playwright John Pielmeier created a taut, three-character play that seamlessly weaves this religious debate into an engrossing whodunit. But despite the “thoughtful” script, “Agnes of God” is ultimately an acting showcase for the three actresses. (The movie version had Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft and a young Meg Tilly in the key roles.)

Lauchengco-Yulo was given her meatiest non-musical role to date and she attacked it with intensity. The audience gets to witness how the abrasive arrogance of psychiatrist Martha Livingston is slowly broken down as she heartbreakingly acknowledges her need to “believe.”

Pinky Amador and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo torch the stage with their dramatic confrontations. Jeeves de Veyra

Amador was able to provide the mother superior with a loving sense of humor but stern when necessary, which all the more made Livingston look stubborn and cold.

Given these two actresses’ body of work, it is already expected that these two Rep veterans will perform well. But Coates is the real revelation here. Her voice, as per the script, truly has an ethereal quality, which the audience first hears — sans sight — singing “Kyrie.” She also more than holds her own against her more experienced co-stars. In fact, she commands the audience’s attention with a beguiling performance that even till the end, leaves you in wonder about what really happened.

But “Agnes of God” isn’t just an acting triumph. It’s also beautifully staged and designed. Mendoza’s minimalist set, inspired by the giant pillars in old churches and monasteries, and dramatically lit by John Batalla, has an otherworldly, almost spiritual glow. Jethro Joaquin’s sound design, meanwhile, accentuates the ethereal quality of Agnes’s singing.

This is simply Rep at one of its very best.

“Agnes of God” runs until March 12 at Onstage Theater in Greenbelt 1, Makati City.