Preview: If We Were Birds

Director Alan Dilworth relaunches myth-based If We Were Birds

IF WE WERE BIRDS by Erin Shields, directed by Alan Dilworth, with Philippa Domville, David Fox, Geoffrey Pounsett and Tara Rosling (Tarragon Theatre/Groundwater Productions). At Tarragon Mainspace (30 Bridgman). Previews through Tuesday (April 20), opens Wednesday (April 21) and runs to May 23, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday (except April 17) 2:30 pm. $33-$39, stu/srs tickets, Friday night and Sunday mat rush $10, previews $20. 416-531-1827. See listings.

Reading a scene from Erin Shields’s If We Were Birds, director Alan Dilworth felt like he’d been punched in the gut.

That’s when he knew he wanted to work on the production and that “it was going to be an incredible ride.”

No surprise the scene evoked such a visceral reaction. The play, a SummerWorks 2008 award winner, is based on Ovid’s tale of sisters Procne and Philomela.

Procne’s husband, the Thracian King Tereus, rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so she won’t tell of the crime. Philomela reveals the deed to her sister in a woven tapestry, leading to more familial bloodshed. The gods turn all three into birds.

“I love the Greek myths,” says Dilworth, one of the most exciting young directors in town. “At their centre are the primal stakes that surround the concept of family, while the conflict between order and chaos also runs through the tales.”

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Shields, who wrote and performed the Dora-nominated The Unfortunate Misadventures Of Masha Galinski, involves not just the three central figures but also the women’s father, King Pandion of Athens.

“The SummerWorks production was a test run,” says Dilworth, who also directed Andrew Kushnir’s The Middle Place and one section of The Gladstone Variations. “It was an incredible investigation for us all” – Dilworth works in a collaborative fashion with his fellow artists – “but the 60-minute time limit meant we had to cut about 20 minutes.

“The Tarragon production returns that material and adds some new scenes. Throughout, Erin’s language has an intuitive and visceral intelligence. It’s blunt and direct, hitting you in the stomach one moment and making you laugh the next.”

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What hasn’t been changed is Shields’s fascinating use of the chorus, who in traditional Greek plays comment on the action from the sidelines. Here the chorus of five women are slaves captured by Tereus and given as a gift to Pandion.

“Erin links each chorus member to a conflict of the last century: Rwanda, Bangladesh, Nanking, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Berlin. The women not only reflect on the story but also facilitate it for their own means.”

The five women, ranging from an adolescent to a grandmother, are a blend of races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“What they share is a history of being ravaged and raped, a political act of violence against them. As the play shows, there are some horrific deeds that occur both in a war and in a family.”

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Like Philomela, Procne and Tereus, the chorus are also linked to birds.

“The image of flying up is a heartbreaking wish or dream,” notes the director. “It offers an escape for the mind as the body is pinned down, ravaged, tortured. It means that the female characters carry incredible tension: being a spirit that desires to fly free while the body is damaged by violence.”

Additional Interview Clip

Working with movement coach Allyson McMackon

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