Stage Door Review

Birds of a Kind

Thursday, August 15, 2019

✭✭

by Wajdi Mouawad, translated by Linda Gaboriau, directed by Antoni Cimolino

Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford

August 14-October 13, 2019

Eitan: “All probabilities are possibile”

The Stratford Festival has scored a coup by presenting the English-language premiere of Wajdi Mouawad’s latest play, Birds of a Kind (Tous des oiseaux) that debuted in Paris in 2017. The play folllows Mouawad’s propensity for epic tales of family such as Scorched (Incendies) of 2003 that trace the fates of families across nations and back and forth in time. Indeed, Birds of a Kind is almost too much like Scorched in that it also concerns a search for identity and a lost relative that leads the searchers to the Middle East. Director Antoni Cimolino gives Birds of a Kind a visually arresting production filled with superb performances from the entire cast. 

The story falls into two halves – the first concerning the quest of German-Jewish youth Eitan Zimmermann (Jakob Ehman) to find out the truth about his father David, the second concerning the fallout from Eitan’s having initiated his quest. The play begins in the university library of Columbia University in New York. Eitan has always found the same book about al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, known as Leo Africanus (c.1493-c.1554), on whatever library table he uses whenever he visits the library. For two years he’s wondered who has been using that book and now he has found out. It is Wahida (Baraka Rahmani), a young Arab-American woman who is writing her thesis on the life of al-Wazzan. 

A renowned scholar, Al-Wazzan was born a Muslim in Granada and was kidnapped by Spanish pirates when he was on his way back from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Recognizing his intelligence, the pirates gave al-Wazzan as a present to Pope Leo X, who freed him to do his research on condition that he convert to Christianity. This he did and became famous for his book Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili che ivi sono (1550), which served as Europeans main source of knowledge about Africa until the 19th century. Al-Wazzan is so important as a symbol for Mouawad that he becomes a character played by Aladeen Tawfeek, who now and then debates the living characters.

Wahida is fascinated with how al-Wazzan coped with his conversion and living among people who otherwise would have been his enemies. Eitan, in contrast, is a geneticist and is fascinated not by how different people are but how similar. He points out that he, Wahida and the book about al-Wazzan were one just before the Big Bang. Despite all their variations human beings are made up of only 46 chromosomes. (Eitan says this but Mouawad forgets that people with Down syndrome have 47.) Stranger than this, 23% of the genes in baker’s yeast are homologous to those in humans. 

Thus, from the beginning Mouawad sets up the contrast of differentiation versus non-differentiation, nature versus nurture, as the theme of the play. Wahida is interested in al-Wazzan’s suppressed identity, but Eitan wonders how identity can have any importance when humans beings are genetically similar. For him the notion of ethnic or religious differences between people ought to fade into irrelevance before the scientific facts.

Eitan’s notions come to the test when he wants to introduce Wahida to his family as his girlfriend. While Eitan’s mother Norah (Sarah Orenstein) and his grandfather Etgar (Harry Nelken) have no objections, Eitan’s father David (Alon Nashman), who is fiercely anti-Arab, is outraged and will have nothing to do with Eitan and hopes he will give up Wahida.

Eitan is so angered by his father he collects samples of his family’s DNA remaining of their seder dishes because he can’t believe his own family would behave in such a way. He does not discover what he hoped, i.e. that his parents are not really his parents. But he does discover something more troubling – his father is not his grandfather’s son. To find out the truth, he and Wahida go to Israel to visit David’s mother Leah (deb Filler), who has been separated from Etgar and from David for 35 years. Eitan’s search for the truth comes to a halt when the bus he is in travelling to Jordan is blown up by terrorists on the Allenby Bridge. Wahida, who was being interrogated by an Israeli border agent (Hannah Miller), is unharmed, but Eitan suffers a severe head injury and hangs between life and death in hospital. Eitan’s injury causes all the main characters to unite in Israel where long-buried secrets related to the reason for Eitan’s journey come to the surface. 

Since the Stratford Festival has cleverly programmed Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1783) in the season and the same space and with much of the same cast as Birds of a Kind, comparisons between the two become inevitable. At first glance Birds of a Kind comes across as an extraordinarily overelaborate version of Lessing’s play that seems merely to make the same points in a 21st-century setting.

Eitan’s initial views that emphasizes what people and indeed all beings have in common is simply a more scientific spin on Lessing’s portrayal of people of different religions as being members of a single family. One might even say that Mouawad’s play functions as a contemporary commentary on Lessing’s.

Lessing, however, wrote in the Enlightenment when people optimistically assumed that human beings were fundamentally rational. Nathan the Wise ends in a celebration when characters of different religions discover they are all related and Lessing assumes that this knowledge increases the tolerance each has gained for the others’ views. 

Mouawad’s view is far less optimistic because it is atavistic. Contrary to what we might assume from the play’s beginning, Mouawad sets out to show that nature is more important than nurture and that differences are more important than similarities. Characters experience a cri du sang (call of blood) of race which was once a feature of sentimentalist 18th-century French tragedy. It’s surprising to see such an antiquated notion being used by a contemporary playwright. Basically, in Mouawad’s view, if a person is born a Muslim, that person is always a Muslim even if they are brought up from infancy in a different religion. The further problem is that Mouawad does not apply this notion in a consistent manner. 

Hannah, as we discover, was brought up in East Germany as an atheist and a communist. Only when she is ten does she discover accidentally that her parents are Jewish. As soon as she is free of her parents she cultivates the jewish heritage she never knew. 

Mouawad has Leah criticize Norah’s Jewish life as a sham because, Leah claims, Norah’s has emphasized her Jewishness not out of religious conviction but in revenge against her parents. Yet with Wahida he takes the opposite view. She is an Arab-American who had never been to Palestine or cared about it. She goes with Eitan on his journey only as a companion. However, once she sees how Palestinians are treated by the Israelis she experiences a mystical cri du sang and instantly identifies with them as her people. One could easily say to Wahida, as Leah says to Norah, that Wahida’s sudden cultivation of her racial identity is false. After all, Wahida may merely be a privileged American girl who is overcome with guilt when she finally realizes that other people of her distant background whom she does not know are suffering. 

After its promising beginning, Mouawad’s play takes a contradictory plunge into identity politics and we never hear of Eitan’s theories of oneness again. The surprise of the origins of Eitan’s father leads to a contrived and melodramatic finale whose main purpose is to reassemble all the main characters, including the symbolic al-Wazzan. Mouawad is so fixated on David that he forgets that Eitan is left with the conflict of his former and present ideas of the importance of nature versus nurture. 

Mouawad’s play may be ultimately melodramatic and sentimental and, unlike Lessing, reveal people to be primarily motivated by emotion rather than reason. Yet, Mouawad does need to say that the hatred between Jews and Muslims is not inbred and is no more rational that the hatred of people for others of a different race, religion or sexuality. 

What elevates the play above its inconsistencies are the amazingly powerful performances of the cast. Given that the play is written in English, German, Hebrew and Arabic (the last three with surtitles) even the ability of the cast to switch so effortlessly from one language to another is astonishing.

Jakob Ehman gives such an intense performance it is simply beyond praise. At no time do you feel he is playing his character. He seems to be his character. Ehman convinces us of the reality of Eitan’s emotion at every stage of his enormously wide emotional arc from slightly goofy student to outraged son to barely surviving victim to anguished human being wise beyond his years. Ehman has risen to the challenge of every role he has played. One can sense that even greater achievements lie ahead.

As Eitan’s father David, Alon Nashman gives one of his finest performances ever. Though Nashman has a gift for comedy, there is nothing at all comic about David. Nashman has David spew his fury at his son and his hatred at Muslims with such vehemence it is truly frightening. Then, when David has to come to terms with the secret about him, Nashman shows David stunned, and in a magnificent turn, speaking in vain as if nothing had happened all the while signalling that David is all too aware that a massive change has occurred.

As Wahida, Baraka Rahmani cannot match Ehman in intensity. Her uninflected voice often cannot lend enough weight to the words she says. Yet, she is expert at conveying the often conflicting emotions of Wahida as she encounters both kind and hostile receptions from others.

One could hardly have found a better actor to play Leah than Deb Filler. Filler fully lives up to Leah’s self-description as “heartless”. She provides a completely non-clichéd portrait of a tough, hard older woman completely devoid of sentiment and of bitterness. Yet, Filler’s is such a rich portrayal that we are not as devastated as Leah is to discover that after fifty years of stoniness she does have a heart after all.

Harry Nelken is excellent as Eitan’s warm-hearted grandfather who is always willing to be conciliatory even when his son or his wife are mean to him. Sarah Orenstein gives a fine performance as Norah bringing out her brittleness and intellectual aloofness.

Francesca Callow has cleverly designed the production so that very few props are needed to conjure up the wide array of locations needed. The colour scheme in earth tones can easily serve as a library, a hospital room, a dining room or a seashore. Jamie Nesbitt’s projections also help define the various locations but when he projects animation of flying birds onto the floor, they appear rather too much like scattering rats. Lighting designer Michael Walton uses a number of techniques not seen before at the Studio Theatre such having strictly defined beams of light play across the floor for transitions between scenes.

It’s very odd that a play with its central image of birds and its praise of their ability to ignore boundaries should give up the universalist approach it starts with for the scarcely credible historical determinism of its conclusion. Eitan argues that suffering cannot be passed on genetically. Why, then, does Mouawad suggest that tribal identification is present even in infants? It’s strange that a creator of such large-scale, globe-hopping tales as Mouawad would leave us with such a suffocatingly narrow world view.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Jakob Ehman as Eitan and Alon Nashman as David; Ron Kennell as a rabbi, Sarah Orenstein as Norah, Alon Nashman as David, Harry Nelken as Etgar, Jakob Ehman as Eitan and Deb Filler as Leah; Harry Nelken as Etgar and Alon Nashman as David; Sarah Orenstein as Norah and Deb Filler as Leah. © 2019 David Hou.

For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.