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The Sinner is the Saint

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By Sujata S. Mukhi

Theater Review
Agnes of God
Presented by Repertory Philippines
Directed by Bart Guingona
Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays
until March 12
Onstage Theatre, Greenbelt 1,
Paseo de Roxas St., Makati City

AGNES OF GOD, touted as a murder-mystery in a convent, hinges on the believability of the actor who plays a nun on trial for the death of a newborn baby found strangled in her room. I have to admit I was doubtful if anyone would be able to match Pinky Amador’s Aliw award-winning portrayal of the hapless nun. Back in 1983, Ms. Amador breathed fire and pain and angels into Agnes as she writhed through her memories of an abusive mother, then turned her face upward in ecstatic praises of God. Her face was sheer purity. I still remember how deeply moved I was by the production that also gave the late great Behn Cervantes an Aliw award for best direction. On a stark stage, the argument between miracles and matter, faith and reason, as represented by Agnes’ superior Mother Miriam Ruth and the court psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone, spoke directly to my own struggles as a non-Catholic raised in a predominantly Catholic country. Ms. Amador was a fresh face at that time, flanked by the formidable twin towers of local theater, Repertory Philippines’ cofounders Baby Barredo as Martha, and Pinky’s aunt the late great Zeneida Amador as Mother Miriam Ruth.

Thirty-four years later, Repertory Philippines brings Agnes of God back as its second offering in the season, with the presence of a different tandem, just as formidable as their predecessors. Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, wiry and steely, literally attacks the role of Martha. And Pinky Amador, coming full circle, steps into the shoes of Mother Miriam, leaving all trace of Agnes behind, balancing both nurturing and ferocious love for her ward.

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Then a bright light shines disarmingly on stage. That light is Becca Coates, who infuses herself with the seeming guilelessness of Agnes. Her innocence is spiritually seductive, her speaking voice hypnotic, her pale face deceptively calm, with eyes strangely emptied of the terrors her character’s life has known. One look at Ms. Coates and all doubt of casting fade away. She is an Agnes from God.

Based on the true story of a nun accused of killing her newborn, the play by John Pielmeier is narrated by chain-smoking Martha as she addresses the audience. Martha has never forgiven the Catholic church for the death of her sister while in a convent, but now finds herself exploring the mind of Sister Agnes, a saintly nun on trial for murder. Martha is to present her findings on Agnes’ sanity in court.

When Martha first meets Agnes, the contrast in demeanor is jolting. Martha seems almost crude in her dissection of Agnes’ story, while Agnes’ strangely robotic yet mellifluous responses are other-worldly and haunting. Agnes claims that the dead baby in the room is not hers, and says that she wasn’t even pregnant.

Martha also meets with Agnes’ Mother Superior Miriam Ruth, and exploratory conversations turn into fierce attack-and-defense of the Catholic Church. “I can smell an ex-Catholic a mile away!” snaps Mother Miriam. “What did we ever do to you?” Martha spews vitriol over a faith that pushes “poverty, chastity and ignorance.” Martha is impatient with Mother Miriam’s protectiveness over Agnes, and the good doctor is bent on slicing into Agnes’ mind to discover the truth of what happened on that one horrific night when the baby was found dead. The good mother wants to keep Agnes’ innocence intact at all cost, even entertaining the idea of a miraculous conception: “…she’s an innocent,” Mother Miriam cries, as she implores Martha to leave Agnes alone. “She’s a slate that hasn’t been touched except by God.” She says this of Agnes who seems to spontaneously bleed from the palms of her hands. Holy stigmata or self-hating cutter? Miracle or mutilation?

And that becomes the metaphor for Agnes’ life, a young woman whose childhood was destroyed by a tortured and tormenting mother, and who may be by psychiatric assessment mentally incapacitated. But by religion, branded as an “innocent.”

In a harrowing revelation, the rawest feelings are drawn from Ms. Lauchengco-Yulo and Ms. Coates. As each act of abuse is revealed, and Agnes’ “I love God” is viscerally contorted into its opposite, you see Agnes’ faith in heaven as really a façade for her inner hell. It really is to Ms. Coates’ credit that she successfully layers victimhood, innocence, and self-delusion. And draws her audience in all at the same time.

After the revelations, Martha becomes protective of Agnes’ humanity, and is stunned at how she has been allowed to remain stunted. Mother Miriam, on the other hand, begs Martha to leave Agnes as a saint. We then begin to see that Agnes not only suffers through physical and emotional abuse, but also has borne spiritual abuse, as God and saintliness are invoked to preserve a perceived purity. “Sacrifice is necessary,” Agnes says. Indeed the sacrificial Agnus Dei. The sacrificial lamb of God. Sinner and saint can’t occupy the same space at the same time.

It’s a powerhouse cast of actors that push each other to the limits. With only three actors and a rich script, it would have been enough for director Bart Guingona to maintain a spare stage, with minimum production elements. But he wisely engaged New York-based set and costume designer Joey Mendoza to virtually design a deceptively simple series of panels that suggest the vertical reach of a church. Sound designer Jethro Joaquin created an ethereal mix of Ms. Coates’ live and recorded (or was someone else in the wings?) singing voice evoking celestial music. And John Batalla’s oh-so-subtle change of hues marked the escalating tension, and the toggle between present-time scenes and flashback.

Repertory Philippines turns 50 this year. It is gratifying to know that in this particular case, change is not coming. Meaning, this generation of Repertory talent is ensuring that the legacy of excellent productions lives on.

Tickets to Agnes of God are available through TicketWorld (www.ticketworld.com.ph) and at the gate.

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