If We Were Birds is a production by the University of Ottawa Drama Guild, meaning a student production. It’s a mature content advisory play that’s a harsh re-telling of a Greek myth dealing with rape and other brutalities. There’s no kid gloves here, and it’s challenging material.
Should you see it?
This play contains scene of violence and mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.
Wow. Did If We Were Birds give me a lot to process. This was a hard review to write without constantly reminding myself I wasn’t writing an essay.
If We Were Birds is based on a story from Greek mythology told in “Metamorphoses” by the Roman poet, Ovid. King Pandion of Athens meets with the great war hero Tereus, is gifted with some slaves, and decides to marry off his eldest daughter Procne to the hero to show his gratitude. The marriage seems to be going well until Procne begs her husband to make the five day trip to Athens to bring her younger sister over for an extended visit. I won’t say more because if you see it, it’s worth experiencing the story unfold as it happens.
While well staged for the most part, some directorial choices here left me scratching my head. There’s use of anachronistic elements such as Tereus’ sash of bullets and fancy red high heels which totally break the feel of an otherwise consistent world and so distract more than add anything. There were also some tonal issues. I don’t think that, right after watching the brutal rape of Philomela, the audience is supposed to be laughing at the idiot king being haunted by images of his presumed dead daughter. I mean, the chorus wearing masks with the daughter’s face is sufficiently creepy but the scene felt like it was in another play compared to everything else.
It’s a visually cool and interesting play. The set plays on the bird imagery, creating variously styled birdcages that allow the action to happen at several different levels, sometimes at once. The costumes are simple to the point where (aside from birdlike headpieces) everybody but the king wears what amounts to underwear. While I appreciate the simplicity of it and understand that the intent was to portray the raw vulnerability of the victims, I’m really not sure why that applied to Tereus. In a play where there’s no gray and men are portrayed as universally evil, (and women as universally victims) why was the focal villain dressed to match the victims? And the chorus needed to stand apart from Procne and Philomela, in colour if nothing else, to more properly do their thing.
Now the cast. Kudos to them for taking on such challenging material and doing right by it (mostly). Annik Welsh as Philomela and Lydia Riding as Procne were stars. They were captivating and fun in their opening scenes and were completely heart-wrenching to watch when they needed to be. Very powerful stuff, ladies. We can expect great things from these two. On the other side of that, Jan Swiderski’s Tereus was inconsistent, occasionally coming across well but in other instances suffering the same problem of King Pandion, who, while well-enough acted by Samuel Dietrich, was a total goofball character that felt like he was in a different play than everybody else.
So while parts of If We Were Birds were hit and miss, there’s little I like better than harsh drama in the hands of strong actors so I’d consider seeing this again just for Annik and Lydia. I would be surprised not to see some of these faces on bigger Ottawa stages in the future.
If you’re up for some challenging drama, you can see If We Were Birds at Academic Hall on the University of Ottawa Campus until November 3rd. Full details here.
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What did you think? Did you find some of the same inconsistencies that I did? What are your thoughts on the presentation of the subject matter of If We Were Birds? Join the discussion in the comments below.
If We Were Birds was written by Erin Shields and directed in this University of Ottawa Drama Guild production by André Perrier. The cast includes Annik Welsh, Lydia Riding, Samuel Dietrich, and Jan Swiderski, with a five person chorus: Meaghan Flaherty, Sophia Lyford-Wilson, Stephie Mazunya, Mahalia Golnosh Tahririha, Mekedes Teshome.
Poster and feature image from the University of Ottawa Drama Guild.