"Do you know how starlings came to America?" asked playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil last week before a rehearsal for her latest play. "I once read an article about a guy who loved birds and Shakespeare so much, he brought them over from Europe because he wanted to bring all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to America. That's a nice, romantic idea, but now we regard starlings as a nuisance, which is a good metaphor for how we think of immigrants."

It is something that this self-described "ethnic salad" knows intimately. Born in Sweden to Bulgarian and Indian parents, she settled in the Twin Cities after studying at Macalester College.

"To pack up and leave your loved ones, change your language, your food, for an unknown land -- that's a huge risk," she said. "We have romanticized it as a nation of immigrants, but it involves a lot of loss and often ends in failure. This play is about celebrating the spirit of those who made the leap."

Kapil's "Agnes Under the Big Top," which premieres today at Mixed Blood Theatre, deals with the isolation, exhilaration and challenges involved in moving families and homes from one culture to another. A one-act that stars Linda Kelsey, Sha Cage, Nathaniel Fuller and Virginia Burke, "Agnes" orbits the intersecting lives of several immigrants. The action, partly narrated by a subway busker, revolves around Liberian nurse Agnes (Cage), who has cancer. The diagnosis brings urgency to her life and to the lives of those around her.

"There is a moment in the play where a character describes these people sitting on the subway platform as being in the 'off' position," said Eric Ting, who directed a workshop of the play in December at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. "On the train, in the subway, in public places, people often look anywhere but in someone else's eyes. The driving question in the play is what would turn us 'on.' What would help us break out of our isolation that we face in the daily grind?"

Story trigger

"Agnes" was triggered by a conversation the playwright had with her father. "He was a subway driver in Sweden the last three years of his life," she said. "He told me about the three people and one dog that he'd killed, though not intentionally. People jumped in front of the train and even if he tried to, he could not stop it that fast."

Kapil, also a director and actor, took her play idea to Jack Reuler at Mixed Blood Theatre, her home theater. He championed the effort, and she won prestigious play-development awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National New Play Network. That allowed her to travel to Bulgaria for research and to hire dramaturg Liz Engelman.

"Liz was a godsend, in terms of helping with focus and clarity and grounding," said Kapil. "I usually go into writing a play knowing the beginning, middle and end. This one was a process of discovery that involved a lot of blind alleys, wrong turns and a lot of killing of characters. I wanted the play to reflect the breadth of the experience in terms of the narrative. So, it has elements of European theatricality and Mumbai chaos, all living within its 90 minutes."

Kapil not only wrote "Agnes," but also is directing it at Mixed Blood, a development that was not planned. Director Ting, associate artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, originally was supposed to helm the production. But a scheduling conflict made it impossible for him to do it; his own staging of "Agnes" in Connecticut opens shortly after the Minneapolis premiere.

He said that "Agnes," which has 24 scenes, is perhaps "the most acutely rendered dramatic work about the contemporary immigrant experience" he's ever seen.

"That this play is populated by a series of voices -- Liberian, Bulgarian, Indian -- that rarely exist in any play, let alone together, is a testament to Aditi's unique identity," said Ting. "She is a person who embodies a plurality of experience."

Added Kapil: "It's a celebratory immigrant tale, with layers of magic and sadness and joy, all rubbing up against each other, like they do in life."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390