Review: BIRDS OF A KIND (Stratford)

by Lynn on September 3, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Wajdi Mouawad

English translation by Linda Gaboriau

Directed by Antoni Cimolino

Designed by Francesca Callow

Lighting by Michael Walton

Projection design by Jamie Nesbitt

Composed by Levon Ichkhanian

Sound by Adam Harendorf

Cast: Shelly Antony

Miranda Calderon

Jakob Ehman

Deb Filler

Danny Ghantous

Ron Kennell

Hannah Miller

Alon Nashman

Harry Nelken

Sarah Orenstein

Baraka Rahmani

Oksana Sirju

Aladeen Tawfeek

A complex story about the prickly relationship of Jews, Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs, of identity and the power of love.

The Story. Eitan is an Israeli-German genetic researcher who met and fell in love with Wahida, a Moroccan woman working on her PhD at a New York University. Eitan’s parents—David and Norah–live in Berlin and when they came to New York to spend Passover with him, they find out he is seeing an Arab woman and David is furious.  Wahida is not Jewish.  Worse, she’s Arab. By loving her Eitan is diminishing the purity of Judaism and certainly if they marry according to David.

Eitan and Wahida go to Israel to meet his grandmother whom he has never met to find out some information about his father David. At the airport, at security, Eitan and Wahida are separated and he is caught in a terrorist attack and seriously hurt. This brings the parents and grandparents together for the first time in several decades. There is a mystery about that long separation that eventually comes out.

Framing the huge play is Wahida’s thesis. It’s about a Moroccan diplomat—therefore Muslim–who is kidnapped and given as a gift to Pope Leo X and is converted to Christianity by the Pope. Wahida’s thesis is a defense of the hypothesis that his conversion was a dissimulation (a concealment). Norah talks about finding out that in fact her family are not Christian, they are Jews but had to hide it. It won’t be the first concealment that will be revealed in the play.  Identity, religion, loving the enemy and being true to ones beliefs factor heavily in Birds of a Kind.

The Production.  Wajdi Mouawad has written a complex play in Birds of a Kind. It’s been given a brilliant English translation by Linda Gaboriau. The dialogue pops with energy, emotion and passion.

Antoni Cimolino has realized all of the depth and complexity of the play in his elegant, exquisite direction.  From its stunning design by Francesca Callow, to the effective lighting by Michael Walton, the production just shimmers.

There is a sense of the exotic about it. There is an intricate lighting pattern on the floor surrounding a raised domed object that looks like it can be a religious symbol.  Then the domed object slowly sinks into the set and the lighting pattern seems to slowly go down into the hole with the object.

Can’t that be a metaphor for thinking that with mixed marriages or thinking you are one religion when you are another that the purity of the religion is being buried, sinking down into the ground? That startling image got me thinking.

The scene transitions are swift, smooth and economical. A table moved down here with movable cubes for chairs is a Seder in New York. A hospital bed moved on with Eitan (Jakob Ehman) on it is a hospital in Israel. Movable cubes form seats, tables and represent the many locations in the play.

Some scenes are in various languages: Hebrew, Arabic, German and English. Surtitles are projected above the stage so that we know what characters are saying to each other.

The cast is terrific from top to bottom. They are lead by Jakob Ehman as Eitan, fierce, compelling and always watchable. Eitan has to deal with many situations, not the least of which is his uptight father David (Alon Nashman). As Eitan, Jakob Ehman tries to control his temper to protect Wahida. The arguments are clear, focused and unsettling.

We get a sense of the anger of David (Alon Nashman) when Eitan brings Wahida (Baraka Rahmani) to the Seder. As David, Alon Nashman rails in pointed language in German to Eitan about Wahida who is in the room with them. Nashman plays David as a man with a temper that he tries to control in this situation, but it’s obvious, he hates this situation. David’s comments about Arabs are full of contempt, disgust and animosity. David’s angry, negative, blinkered thoughts about Arabs, dare I say it, Muslims are startling. He does not believe that Jews and Arabs can live in peace and harmony, but there is his son who loves an Arab woman and all David can see is negativity. It’s David’s blinkered attitude that makes one despair.

It’s interesting that it’s the Jew (David) who has animosity with the Arabs and not the other way around. As Wahida, Baraka Rahmani is as still as Eitan is active. Rahmani has a quiet demeanour; who doesn’t want to make waves; who at first looked askance at Eitan as he pursued her but then gave it and fell in love with him. It’s a lovely performance

Eitan’s mother Norah, beautifully played by Sarah Orenstein, introduces the theme of concealment. Norah thought she had been born and raised Christian but found out that in fact her family was Jewish and had to hide it for protection during the war. What a revelation. How does a person process that information? Playwright Wajdi Mouawad presents prickly questions for us to consider. As Norah, Orenstein plays a calm woman who lives with a volatile, stubborn husband. She plays the peacemaker, a go-between who tries to calm the situation. It’s a performance of grace and understanding.

Eitan has come to Israel to speak to his grandmother Leah (Deb Filler) about his father David. Eitan has never met his grandmother and there is a mystery as to why she has not spoken to her son in more than 30 years. Deb Filler as Leah keeps many secrets. Leah has that careless attitude, a shrug speaks volumes. She’s a woman who wants to be left alone and not be reminded of what has happened and what she felt she had to do all those years ago. But the truth is revealed, reluctantly.

Comment. Wajdi Mouawad always writes complex difficult plays about identity, cultures and beliefs. And he always writes too much and too long. That said Birds of a Kind is poetic, troubling, and compelling. You are just drawn into this play and you will certainly be thinking about the identity of the characters and your own.

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Opened: Aug. 14, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2019.

Running Time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.

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