BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's BIRDS OF A KIND is a Powerful Exploration of Identity
On Wednesday evening, a powerful and complex exploration of identity, generational trauma, and spirituality opened at the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre. The English language premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's BIRDS OF A KIND (English Translation by Linda Gaboriau) provokes thought and emotion and is a great companion to NATHAN THE WISE, which opened at the same theatre earlier in the season and despite being very different tonally, shares many themes. Directed by Festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, BIRDS OF A KIND begins as a story of two almost unknowingly star crossed lovers and morphs into a tale about members of a family each struggling to honour their perceived identities and religions in their own ways.
The strength of this production lies in the performances. With the perspective In Focus alternating from one character to another, this is a true ensemble piece with each member of the company breathing life into an imperfect, but deeply human character. The focus of the actors and director is not to make these characters likeable, it is to make them real. That, in turn makes them empathetic, even when they are expressing an opinion (moral, spiritual, or intellectual) that audience members may not share.
The play opens with Wahida (Baraka Rahmani), an American born graduate student of Moroccan decent, remembering how she and her fiancé Eitan (Jakob Ehmon) first met in the library of Columbia University. By pure coincidence or perhaps something more divine, Eitan kept finding the same unique book at each table he sat at over a series of months. He is excited to finally find Wahida with the book and explain the miraculous coincidence. Eitan is not typically one to believe in the mystical, he is a man of science. He shares his view that a person is simply made of 46 chromosomes, and therefore spirituality, generational trauma, etc. are not included in that mix. We are then transported to a hospital in Jerusalem where Eitan has been the victim of a suicide bombing and Wahida is at his bedside. We learn it is not a simple task for her to reach out to his family in Germany. His father, David (Alon Nashman) an Israeli Jew, is not supportive of their inter-cultural relationship and has strong prejudices against those of Arabic descent. His mother Norah (Sarah Orenstein) reflects on her own moment of rebellion when she chose to marry a Jewish man from Israel after being raised in Germany by a father who for many years had hid the fact that her family was even Jewish. She too, is not in favour of her son's relationship. His anger over his parents' reactions leads him to spitefully test their DNA. This leads to bigger questions about his family's roots and origins and that is what leads him and Wahida to travel to Jerusalem. This is how his estranged grandmother Leah (Deb Filler) enters the picture.
As Eitan's grandfather Etgar (Harry Nelken) and father are reunited with Leah, the whole family and Wahida awkwardly sit vigil hoping for Eitan to wake up from his coma. As they wait, they audience begins to learn some long hidden truths about the identity of certain family members and how these secrets have (or are about to) caused each family member to suffer to their core. Wahida has her own journey of self-discovery as she ventures to the other side of the wall and learns about a culture and religion she had lived most of her life ignoring. These internal and familial conflicts are all happening while surrounded by the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This play effectively takes the audience deep into the Israeli Palestinian conflict and allows us to view it through the skewed, and slowly developing perspectives of specific people. The pain and motivations behind the thoughts of certain characters allow them to be fully fleshed out people on a path of discovery-this makes it particularly devastating when one character's path is suddenly cut short-especially because this is the character who arguably has the most self discovery to do. It may be tragic, but it also feels incredibly realistic. This happens all the time in life and it is suddenly up to the people left behind to find their own version of spiritual meaning in what has happened. Each actor gives a truly powerful and heartbreaking performance right to the breathtaking final moments of the play.
Birds are a common motif throughout this play. Two characters discuss how birds can fly freely over the wall dividing two cultures in conflict and later a story is told of a bird that is able to adapt to live in water. The story of al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, a man who later went by the name Leo Africanus has an equally important presence throughout the play. The topic of Wahida's research thesis, Africanus was a man who like the bird who learned to breath underwater, converted to Christianity in order to thrive after being kidnapped from his Muslim beginnings by pirates and given as a gift to the pope. This story is what birthed this play by Mouawad and it offers a great historical comparison to things that are happening to our characters today-especially considering how the theme of trauma being transmitted over generations is repeatedly explored.
The authenticity of the performances is heightened by the choice to use several different languages in this production. At different times, depending on who is speaking to whom and what they are speaking about, the actors speak in English, Hebrew, German, and Arabic with English translations projected on a backdrop when needed. Although I am admittedly only proficient in the English language, it appears that Cimolino and language coaches Jewels Krauss, Hannah Miller, and Aladeen Tawfeek (the latter two are also actors in this production) took great care to make sure that these languages were spoken well and treated with the respect they deserve. Much is made in this play about the importance of reconnecting with one's identity through their "mother tongue." The play presents the idea that it is necessary for someone to be spoken to in their mother tongue for them to peacefully pass on to the afterlife. This may not be a belief shared by every audience member, but it is an idea that is earned for the purpose of this play because of the respect shown to the languages that these characters would realistically be speaking throughout the play.
BIRDS OF A KIND is a moving exploration of ideas and beliefs and identity that is gripping from the very beginning. It is always a privilege to see a piece of theatre that does not hesitate to grapple with complex material and to open the audience's eyes to worlds and worldviews that they may not otherwise consider in their day to day life. This play seemingly effortlessly manages to be both a universal exploration of the human experience and a very specific story of decades long pain.
BIRDS OF A KIND continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 13th.
Photo Credit: David Hou