If We Were Violently Traumatized Birds

Yay, it’s Halloween!  Wow, I totally can still remember when that meant something to me…you know, before I died inside?  Sweet memories.

One day, I’ll don this uniform again. One day..!

Alas, I wish this were gonna be a properly Halloween-themed post, but no such luck…you’re even LUCKIER, and it’s a writeup of the latest theatre piece from the Ottawa University Drama Guild!  Got myself all invited to the show last night, by Ottawa U’s Theatre kingpin himself, Joel Beddows, who was on hand for the premiere.  The show was Erin Shields’ IF WE WERE BIRDS, directed by Andre Perrier.  It had been a while since I was back in the hallowed Academic Hall, and I always welcome any excuse to see a show there.  I was stoked, and happily clueless about whatever the show was about.  From the title, I figured SOMEthing lighthearted and gay, no doubt.

…Yeah, not so much, as it turns out.  But then, preconceived notions are best shattered, eh?  BIRDS tells the story of sisters Philomela (Annik Welsh) and Procne (Lydia Riding), daughters of the somewhat dippy King Pandion of Athens (Samuel Dietrich), who spend their days idly wondering about love and marriage, with amusingly frank euphemisms about sex tossed in there.  It’s all very lighthearted and gay, to be sure, and it all starts to go sour pretty darn quick, with the arrival of warrior-king Tereus (Jan Swiderski) of Thrace.  He’s just quelled a rebellion for the King, and brought along as gifts a passel of beautiful slaves (Meaghan Flaherty, Sophia Lyford-Wilson, Stephanie Mazunya, Mahalia Golnash and Mekedes Teshome), who double as the chorus for our far-reaching tale.  In recompense the Kind gives Tereus Procne’s hand in marriage, leaving doting Philomela alone with the slave girls.  A wonderful scene ensues where the naive daughter listens to the terrifying list of crimes committed against the women when they were taken into captivity, and trying vainly to justify or deny them, to maintain her fragile worldview.  Procne, meanwhile, gives Tereus a son, but misses her sibling.  She finally persuades hubby to cross the seas and fetch Philomela…vastly underestimating the violence that lurks beneath Tereus’ surface.

I usually leave things like ‘trigger warnings’ to my good pal Nadine, but in this case (and given some of the more noticeable reactions in the crowd around me on opening night), I do feel the need to make a few things clear…this is a show about Rape.  And at times, a pretty shockingly unsubtle one.  Then again, it’s not exactly a subject matter that lends itself to subtlety, to be honest.  The chorus, often seen moving sensually about in the background of the sprawling set (kudos to designer Julie Giroux, and choreographer Sarah Algozino), alternate between group and solo turns speaking directly to the audience, and a cleverly used camera.  They tell all-too-believable tales of sexual assault in wartime from across the ages, even as the spectacle of Tereus, Philomela and Procne reaches it’s terrible depths.  It’s hard viewing (and there WERE a few walkouts that night), and the cast deserves full credit for pulling it all off.  Annik Welsh is terrific as Philomela, as is Lydia Riding as the slightly more worldly Procne.  Jan Swiderski does a great job indeed making Tereus more than one-dimensional.

Lots to like in this awfully daring production…great sound from designer Nick Komarnicki, innovative staging, and the chorus is a treat…but it won’t be for everyone.  It’s VERY hard for a show like this to not come off as preaching,  and I have to admit even I felt like I was getting sternly lectured from time to time.    But then I think of the stats on Rape coming from every corner of the world, especially in times of war…and wonder if  maybe that’s not exactly what we all need.  Certainly food for thought, and props to the Drama Guild for tackling this difficult piece, running until November 3rd, with style.  But please…something lighthearted and gay next time, eh? I think I need it. 🙂  Peace, love and soul,

The Visitor (and Winston says Happy Halloween!)

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