Moth­ers, daugh­ters, and the patron saint of rape survivors

Philly Fringe 2019: Migra­tion the­o­ry presents Anoth­er Agatha’

3 minute read
In search of comfort: Callie Ritter and Donna Jean Fogel in ‘Another Agatha.’ (Photo by Sarah Gardner.)
In search of comfort: Callie Ritter and Donna Jean Fogel in ‘Another Agatha.’ (Photo by Sarah Gardner.)

Migration Theory immersed us in the world of its Fringe show, Another Agatha, from the moment we stepped through the doors at Vox Populi. A woman in a long homespun apron awaited us there with a small sign that said “Welcome.”

Without saying a word, she led us to the elevator, and then to seats on a wooden bench on casters in front of a long table set with cups and flatware, from set designer Michael Baltzell. The black-box theater is tiny; there was room for only 16 of us at the table.

Observers?

Before we could settle into our usual observer status as an audience, another performer in an apron approached. “Tea? Water?” her sign asked. She poured and a woman in black set us up with earphones, the kind you might pick up to hear the commentary at a museum tour. Separated from each other by inches on our bench, we found ourselves isolated inside our thoughts—and our thoughts were in Italian. “We are so happy you are here,” a woman’s voice said. “We feel invisible when we are quiet. It’s difficult to talk comfortably. Just listen to the music.”

She hummed Pucccini’s “Nessum Dorma” under her breath. The tenor’s aria ends with a soaring “Vincero!” He will win the princess, who will lose, of course. The opera assures us that she is happy to do so. They always say she wanted it, after all. Why should Puccini be any different?

Dessert and hagiography

At 6:30pm, the start time on our tickets, the cast pushed our benches up to the table and served us little cakes: Saint Agatha’s breasts, with a dark cherry for a nipple. The Italian woman in our ear explained how they were made, while in the background we heard the sounds of the sea. Saint Agatha of Sicily is the patron saint of rape survivors. In the hagiography she was a virgin who pledged herself to god. When she refused a powerful man’s advances, he had her thrown into a brothel and tortured, including ripping off her breasts (thus those cherry-nippled cakes).

Becoming invisible

Callie Ritter gave a powerful performance as Agatha. In a long white sleep kaftan (Saint Agatha’s sleep dress is a relic preserved in Sicily), she stepped from table to table trying to escape the wealthy Salvatore (Antony Bolante). In this version of the story, she hides a pregnancy. She will save her daughter by giving her away.

This is a metaphor, the voice in the headphones told us, as a present-day mother (another Agatha) wondered about the child she gave up. The daughter yearned for her mother and dreamed of green tiles, wondering if they are memories. A man sexually assaulted her, and she drove him home afterward. As you do. We meditated on being invisible as the mother and daughter wondered where in the world the other had gone. The dancers wore pale tees and wide-legged pants (costumes by director Tracey Sunderland and DJ Fogel), and the dancing was full of close embraces, heads resting on shoulders, daughters in search of a mother’s comfort, and that one good man who seems to be as mythic as the martyred saint.

Just one piece

Home is Boise, Idaho; the dancers showed off their cowgirl sass on the tabletops, but admitted to hipster coffee bars there, too. Slowly the voice drew us out of the spell she had woven around the damaged souls in the story and the audience. The applause was tentative, the first sound we had shared since walking into the theater. It felt like an intrusion, and we hadn’t quite let go of those inner voices. To take nothing away from the good work I’ve seen during Fringe this year, if I could see just one piece, it would be Another Agatha.

What, When, Where

Another Agatha: a Myth of Perception. By Tracy Sunderland and Sarah Gardner, directed by Tracy Sunderland. Through September 19, 2019. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.

Vox Populi requires advance notice to provide a portable ramp, and its elevator cannot accommodate all wheelchairs. Audience members sit on wooden benches during the performance.

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