Thursday, April 11, 2013

'Agnes of God' offers powerful exploration of abuse, faith

Faith, religion, abuse, psychological scars, innocence, guilt, insanity and murder and the effects, implications and meanings of each of those words are powerfully explored in "Agnes of God," a taut three-person drama, which opened at M&D Productions' Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. Thursday.

"Agnes of God," which is playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks, centers on Agnes (Natasha Repass), a novice nun who is accused of murdering her baby, a baby in which she claims she never saw and has no memory of giving birth to. Dr. Martha Livingstone (Christine Thompson), a court-appointed psychologist, has been sent to the convent to determine if Agnes is sane.

Agnes, who came to the convent with little knowledge of the outside world, is "an innocent" according to the Mother Superior (Jane Duggan). She is blessed with a beautiful singing voice that Mother Superior believes means she is touched by god.

The delicate, childlike Agnes is also deeply disturbed. She sees visions, both transcendent and troubling. Are her hallucinations brought on by years of childhood abuse or is she a modern saint communicating with God? After all, as the Mother Superior notes, the saints today would be dismissed as raving loons.

Mother Superior gets into an ideological battle with Livingstone, who is an atheist with a justifiable hatred toward nuns because of a dark secret from her past. Both want to protect and save Agnes, but have very different views on how to do so. Mother Superior wants to shelter Agnes from the cruelty of the world, whereas Livingstone wants Agnes to face her deep scars from abuse she doesn't understand.

"Agnes of God," written by John Pielmeier, is an excellent actors' showcase, and award-winning director Richard Russo has once again pulled great work out of his cast. It helps that the characters are richly written with multiple dimensions. Even the Mother Superior role is more complex than at first glance.

Thompson, who is on stage the whole time, has the most challenging role. In addition to interacting with Repass and Duggan both individually and together, she delivers monologues directly to the audience. Thompson is required to run the complete emotional gamut from a tough cynical psychiatrist just there to do a job to someone who is completely emotionally invested in Agnes' plight. Along the way Livingstone's beliefs are shaken and her resolve tested.

It is a difficult role that Thompson delves into completely, giving a subtle performance that slowly reveals her character shifts. She only really stumbles in her final monologue, but that is more a limitation of the writing than her. Pielmeier's script throughout is full of intelligent, probing, affecting and occasionally funny dialogue, but that concluding monologue feels forced as it tries to neatly bring plot threads and themes together.

Duggan perfectly captures the mannerisms, body language and speech patterns of a Mother Superior, but this is a character that isn't written broadly or as a stern cliche. She is warm and caring toward Agnes and also shows moments of subversive wit in her conversations with Livingstone. Duggan explores these shadings in a way that feels natural and unaffected.

Repass has the showiest role as she is required to go to dark places and perform some intense scenes. It is to Repass' credit that even when she must say and do outrageous things that the performance stays grounded in a place that feels real. Repass captures the sweet innocence of Agnes, but also reveals the hurt and confusion the sweetness masks. Agnes is a tragic character that Repass makes heartbreakingly believable.

The set by Deborah Jasien is simple, but also beautiful. The lighting design by Ken Martin works with the set to create interesting visuals that are quite effective.

This is a show that stirs discussion and asks the audience to confront heavy emotions and ideas. It is a challenging, but worthy of evening of theater in which you can't help but admire the craft of everyone involved.

For more information or tickets call the box office at 662-7591.

Remembering Roger: A tribute to a great critic and man

Thursday, April 4, 2013, Roger Ebert, arguably the most renowned film critic ever, passed away. It has taken me some time to process this information and I am still grappling with what this loss means to me on a personal level. I'm not ashamed to admit I've shed several tears.

Ebert along with his TV partner, Gene Siskel, were my first introduction to film criticism and analysis and, ultimately, the inspiration behind my desire to become a film critic. In fact, when Gene Siskel died on Feb. 20, 1999, I called a friend and told them I would fill the void his absence left behind. Now, with Ebert gone, I feel even more compelled to carry forth the legacy of these men.

It feels strange to have such a strong emotional response to the death of someone I never knew personally and yet, in a way, through his writing and TV shows, I knew him very well. For more than a decade, every week I would go to to discover Ebert's thoughts on the latest releases. It deeply saddens me that I will never know his thoughts on future films, but I take solace in the fact that I can still read any of his 7,202 reviews and rewatch decades worth of his various TV shows.

His loss didn't come as a complete surprise. His output slowed recently with Richard Roeper and other critics filling in writing reviews for his website. But part of me, irrationally, always thought I'd be reading him. After all, he always bounced back from his battles with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands. Just two days before his death he wrote a blog laying out his plans for the future. In the face of adversity, he always looked ahead with hope and drive. It is this aspect of Ebert that made him not just a great critic, but a great man.

When cancer robbed him of his ability to speak, he turned to Twitter and blogging and found a whole new generation of fans. Where others would've slowed down from an illness, he became more prolific writing sometimes nine movie reviews a week as well as keeping up on his blog that explored everything from his personal struggles with cancer to politics.

Ebert, the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, had become the elder statesman of film criticism, but he was hardly out of touch with what was current. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, such as Andrew Sarris, who also recently passed away, he didn't romanticize film past so much so that he dismissed the present. He truly loved cinema, both high art and pure entertainment.

His passion for film was evident in his writing and through the numerous incarnations of the "Siskel and Ebert" movie review show, which first began in 1975 under the title "Opening a Theater Near You." He was not afraid to emote about a film, even one that may be considered "bad." He had a soft spot for adventure and sci-fi films that reminded him of the youthful zeal he had reading similar tales as a boy.

Ebert's writing style was both informal and formal at the same time. He wrote as if he was speaking directly to you, but he never condescended. He had a genuine wit and could also be poetic and elegant in his writing. I've always tried to emulate that myself.

He was a beacon of good criticism and quality writing in a sea of tabloid, sensationalistic entertainment journalism. So much of what passes for film criticism today is shallow, superficial and more interested in gossip and whether a film will be a box office hit than actually critiquing the film.

The idea of intelligent discourse about film that Ebert and Siskel first introduced to the public is fading away. This is a shame because film is important. Movies are a reflection of us. Ebert knew this and used his reviews and his TV shows to attempt to seriously explore not just film, but the human experience. He invited us all on that journey.

I've cherished every moment of that journey and hope to continue it and perhaps, like Ebert did for me, bring others along for the ride. That seems like the best way to honor the life of a man who was so much more than just a film critic. He was a mentor, guide and a friend. I will never forget his impact on my life.