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Theatre Reviews Stratford Festival 2019: In Wajdi Mouawad’s Birds of a Kind, nothing succeeds like excess

Harry Nelken, left, as Etgar and Jakob Ehman as Eitan with members of the company in Birds of a Kind.

David Hou/Stratford Festival

  • Title: Birds of a Kind
  • Written by: Wajdi Mouawad
  • Translated by: Linda Gaboriau with Jalal Altawil, Eli Bijaoui and Uli Menke
  • Director: Antoni Cimolino
  • Actors: Baraka Rahmani, Jakob Ehman, Alon Nashman
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Studio Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 13, 2019

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Birds of a Kind, a vivid and vaulting multigenerational Middle East-set drama that has marked a major comeback for the Governor-General’s Award-winning playwright Wajdi Mouawad, is now having what you would normally call its “English-language premiere” at the Stratford Festival.

But the label doesn’t quite fit in this case.

While Mouawad originally wrote Birds of a Kind as Tous des oiseaux in French, its world-premiere production at Théâtre national de la Colline – the Paris theatre company the Lebanon-born, Quebec-raised playwright and director now runs – was performed by actors speaking English, Hebrew, German and Arabic (with French surtitles).

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The sweeping play’s characters are American, German and Israeli, and Mouawad hired four translators so that a multilingual cast could speak in the appropriate language in the appropriate context.

And so, while bits of Birds of a Kind are indeed being performed in English for the first time in Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s cinematic swirl of a production, much of it has always been.

Sarah Orenstein, as Norah, shows off using multiple languages.

David Hou/Stratford Festival

Likewise, major scenes are still performed in Hebrew, German and Arabic (with English surtitles now) by impressive newcomers to Stratford and well-known veterans such as Alon Nashman and Sarah Orenstein showing off second, third and even fourth languages.

Birds of a Kind centres around a young Arab-American historian named Wahida (Baraka Rahmani), who has travelled to Israel with her boyfriend, Eitan (Jakob Ehman), a Jewish German geneticist, on a journey to learn more about his complicated family’s history.

On the bridge between Israel and Jordan, the two found themselves in the middle of a terrorist attack – and Eitan was seriously injured.

As the play begins, the young man is in a hospital in another borderland – that between life and death.

We learn through flashbacks how Wahida met Eitan and what motivated their trip – before various family members arrive at his bedside.

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This is a highly fraught family reunion for many reasons.

Eitan’s mother Norah (Orenstein) and his father David (Nashman, astonishing) have been estranged from their son since a fight over his relationship with Wahida. That Passover scene, also seen in a furious flashback, had David quietly but insistently putting forward the case that his son is “participating in the disappearance” of his people.

Alon Nashman, as David, is impressive in his performance.

David Hou/Stratford Festival

Meanwhile, Leah (a mournful but feisty Deb Filler), Eitan’s grandmother who lives in Israel, has not spoken to her son, David, in decades – since she cut off all contact after divorcing his father, Etgar (Harry Nelken), a gentle but emotionally aloof concentration-camp survivor.

As with many of Mouawad’s best-known plays such as Scorched (Incendies in French, and adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie by Denis Villeneuve) and Forests, Birds of a Kind is a kind of genealogical mystery – and the story behind the self-proclaimed “heartless” Leah’s abandonment of David connects the family to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the Six-Day War and the Holocaust.

Unlike Mouawad’s previous plays, however, the audience does not find out the play’s central secret at the climax exactly. Instead, spectators will catch on, at their own pace, and then watch the truth ripple and roar.

“It’s not the truth that gouges Oedipus’s eyes, but the speed at which he receives it,” says one character, arguing for continued silence in a speech that, like much of Mouawad, finds inspiration in Greek tragedy. “It’s not the wall that kills the race-car driver, it’s the speed at which he crashes into it.”

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Questions of identity and destiny weave in and out – genetics and history and how trauma gets transmitted down generations, explored in challenging, complex ways.

A subplot about Wahida’s thesis on a 15th-century Muslim diplomat named al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan seems a distraction at first – but the eventual payoff is huge.

Wazzan, a real historical figure and possible inspiration for Shakespeare’s Othello, appears magically in many scenes from Wahida’s point of view – and is played with great grace by Aladeen Tawfeek, especially as he delivers a parable at the heartbreaking climax of the play.

Birds of a Kind is hardly a succinct play, clocking in at over three hours. While I will mainly defend Mouawad from accusations of overwriting – I almost always eventually get swept up in the sprawl of his Sturm und Drang – there are aspects here that feel reminiscent of early versions of older plays he eventually trimmed.

An Israel Defense Forces soldier (Hannah Miller) who detains Wahida on the bridge before the attack is a riveting, morally complicated character at first – but her arc takes a perplexing turn and it’s unfortunate that her most superfluous speech comes right before intermission.

Mouawad also goes awry overemphasizing Wahida’s beauty in the story, with characters always commenting on it, using it against her. It is a burden for an actor – and, while I suspect Mouawad means to deconstruct the male and Western gaze toward Arab women, it is an awkward aspect of the show.

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Any unevenness in the writing, the acting or Cimolino’s production – which features poetic projections by Jamie Nesbitt – are made up for in the richness and raw emotion of the whole, however.

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