Birds of a Kind untethers the suffering of past generations from present conceptions of identity

Stratford Festival review: Birds of a Kind

Jakob Ehman (left) as Eitan and Alon Nashman as David in Birds of a Kind. Photography by David Hou. David Hou / jpg, SF

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In director Antoni Cimolino’s Stratford adaptation of Birds of a Kind, memories, traumas and untold secrets of the past are seamlessly interwoven with events in the present, tying together a rich, dreamlike tapestry spanning centuries of conflict between peoples of disparate cultures, religions and languages.

Told from the perspective of a single family of Jewish, German, and Israeli descent who harbour a potentially devastating secret and the Palestinian-American woman, Wahida (Baraka Rahmani), who seemingly threatens to tear that family apart in exchange for the love she feels for son Eitan (Jakob Ehman), each character’s history – and the history of their ancestors – are brought into focus piece by piece – in a kind of cascading context – to explain their onstage actions, words, feelings and relationships, not only to the audience but to each other as well.

Standing in the way of true understanding between characters is their initial unwavering sense of identity – of who they are and where they fit in the world.

Whether that be the German-Jewish mother, Norah (Sarah Orenstein), who didn’t learn she was Jewish until she was a teenager and married a Jew to spite her father, her Israeli-German husband, David (Alon Nashman), who takes it as a personal offence that his son would fall in love with an Arab woman, or David’s self-proclaimed heartless mother, Leah (Deb Filler), who allows her son to believe she abandoned him because she didn’t love him like she should, the events serve to break down the barriers between characters and force them to confront their own strongly held beliefs, however catastrophic that might be.

Baraka Rahmani (left) as Wahida and Deb Filler as Leah in Birds of a Kind. Photography by David Hou. David Hou / jpg, SF

And through it all Wahida, who herself struggles with the notion of abandoning the culture of her parents for that of the west, keeps coming back to her doctoral thesis about al-Hasan ibn Muhammed al-Wazzan (Aladeen Tawfeek), a 16th-century Moroccan diplomat who was captured by pirates, presented as a gift to Pope Leo X and forced to convert to Christianity, yet still managed to educate Europeans on the then largely unknown African continent and Islam.

Wahida, Eitan and his family members each address the question of whether an adopted culture supersedes the original, or if the two can exist in harmony.

While language and cultural barriers between the characters prevent them from truly understanding one another until the end of the play, the audience gets an intimate look at how each character sees one another and themselves through snippets of conversation meant to be kept private, thanks to the production team’s use of English subtitles projected onto the top stone of a square arch. It’s one of only a few basic set pieces used in the play but incredibly effective.

And even though much of the play’s text is presented to the audience in black and white, each member of the cast manages to deliver that text – whether in German, Hebrew, Arabic or English – with the raw emotion one would expect from a family in such deep-rooted turmoil.

Though the set was relatively basic, the use of recorded sound, projected images and violent flashes of light bring the terrorist attacks in Israel and military strikes in Palestine, the news reports on television, and the intimate moments of true love between Wahida and Eitan to life in, at times, both a surreal and all-too-real way.

Birds of a Kind plays in repertory at The Studio Theatre until Oct. 13.