If We Were Birds

Soaring truths

IF WE WERE BIRDS by Erin Shields (Tarragon). To May 23. $10-$39. 416-531-1827. See Continuing. Rating: NNNN

Anyone doubting the relevance and primal pull of myth needs to see If We Were Birds. Scratch that. Anyone interested in powerful theatre should see it.

Expanded from its sold-out 2008 SummerWorks run and given a spare but suggestive staging at the Tarragon, Erin Shields’s reimagining of the Ovid tale tells a brutal story of war, rape and revenge, but makes it contemporary by weaving in the voices of female victims of more modern war crimes.

Years after King Pandion (David Fox) marries off his daughter Procne (Phillipa Domville) to the warrior Tereus (Geoffrey Pounsett), separating her from her sister Philomela (Tara Rosling), he agrees to let Tereus collect the sister so the two can be reunited. The brutality that follows defies easy synopsis – let’s just say Shakespeare drew on it for one of his bloodiest plays, Titus Andronicus.

Shields’s dialogue is direct and immediate, grounded in solid details. Characters emerge clearly from the script, like the vain, pompous Pandion and his macho posturing with braggart Tereus. My only quibble is with the metamorphosis to birds in the final moments.

Director Alan Dilworth gets nuanced performances from everybody. Pounsett captures Tereus’s violent impulses in a tough-to-watch scene, Rosling plunges believably from eager girl to radiant woman and then figure of pathos, while Domville astonishes with her fury in the gripping final third.

The terrific Karen Robinson, Barbara Gordon and others round out the cast as a chorus of female slaves and victims of war violence from other eras – a motif that adds a disturbing note of timelessness to the play’s theme.

Kimberly Purtell’s lighting design adds to the play’s foreboding – particularly during an effective shadowplay scene – and Jung-Hye Kim’s set, dominated by a back curtain of string, allows for easy entrances and exits and gains in symbolic power as the play progresses.

Not to be missed.

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