Review: "Birds of a Kind" at Stratford Festival

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

In his Director’s Note, Antoni Cimolino calls Wajdi Mouawad’s ‘Birds of a Kind’ (with English translation by Linda Gabriau) “the culmination of a long and winding journey.”

I couldn’t agree with him more. I grew tired as so much is going on.

Just over three hours long, ‘Birds of a Kind’ demanded close attention be paid as it was easy to get lost if you don’t have a background in Middle East Palestinian conflicts. My attention wandered as so much information was given that I began to lose track of specific relationships the characters had with each other. At the interval, the lady who sat next to me asked if there was a book or something she might be able to read to give her more information. I’m assuming her attention wandered as well.

Ashamedly, I’ll admit that I’m not as well versed on the Middle Eastern conflicts as I should be. I told the lady next to me that the programme offered important information on the conflict.  And it does as I re-read it later. Due to my ignorance of world events, I wish I had known more before the play.

Wahida (Baraka Rahmani), a Moroccan graduate student meets Eitan (Jakob Ehman), a young Israeli-German genetic researcher, in the library at the university in New York and their story unfolds. Yes, it’s cute to watch as Wahida initially wants nothing to do with Eitan, and the physical movement at the table to avoid conversation of any kind is amusing. The story then shifts to Jerusalem when Eitan lies in a coma on account of a terrorist attack on a bridge; however, the context and background were so thick with political information that my head was spinning with details that I couldn’t connect. 

If I had a stronger understanding of these events, I might have been able to connect more with the intrigue and machinations in the context of the social and societal machinations.

‘Birds of a Kind’ is not a disappointment by any means as there were several strong moments which worked well for me theatrically. It’s a bare stage except for a lamp (reminded me of the ghost lamp in theatres) which we see that incorporates interesting shadow effects on the stage floor. As the lights dim, the lamp slowly disappears through the floor.  Very effective indeed.

Ms. Rahmani and Mr. Ehman are highly engaging, likeable performers who made me pay attention to their story and to try and understand what was happening to them as best as I could. We also get a chance to meet Eitan’s ‘unique’ relatives. Deb Filler is a riot as Eitan’s brash grandmother, Leah, who candidly calls and sees things as they are. At times, Ms. Filler provided much needed relief in a plot that is dense with intrigue and much sadness.

As Eitan’s parents David and Norah, Alon Nashman and Sarah Orenstein offer another look into the young man Eitan has become. Norah is a psychiatrist and we learn about one of her patients who ‘performs’ some interesting artwork.  I don’t want to spoil but again suffice to say this revelation is horrifying, surprising and utterly laughable at the same time. The tense relationship between mother and son (David and Leah) is subtly captured with pathos and intensity between Mr. Nashman and Ms. Orenstein. As Leah’s ex-husband and David’s father, Etgar, Harry Nelken’s performance is often poignant as clandestine secrets upon secrets are revealed.

Other company members as medical staff and library patrons help to move set pieces seamlessly while helping to keep the pace moving. Throughout the production, we hear German and Arabic spoken.  Thank goodness there are subtitles placed at various points for the audience to follow along. To my ear, the dialect did sound believable and natural.

FINAL COMMENTS: I’m not sure if there are audience talkbacks for ‘Birds of a Kind’ as I’m most certain they would be beneficial for those, like myself, who need to pay careful attention to world events. If anything, this cast under Antoni Cimolino’s direction has made me aware that I do need to pay more attention to the news on a wider international scale.

‘Birds of a Kind’ runs to October 13 at The Studio Theatre, 39 George Street, Stratford Ontario.  For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca or telephone 1-519-273-1600 or 1-800-567-1600.

Photo of Jakob Ehman and Baraka Rahmani by David Hou.