20% Theatre Twin Cities is presenting a majestic production of “If We Were Birds” directed with a steely classical eye by Lee Hannah Conrads at Nimbus Theatre. This story of women as the spoils of war seems sadly fitting for these days of continuous reporting of current global conflicts that seem to be spinning out of control.
Erin Shields’s script won Canada’s 2011 Governor General’s Award. It retells the ancient story of Philomela, a royal Athenian sister who is abducted, raped, and mutilated by her brother-in-law, Tereus, King of Thrace. The playwright draws from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and fragments remaining from Sophocles’s tragedy, “Tereus.”
Rather than having Greco-Roman male figures as her Chorus, Shields comprises hers of female characters victimized by modern wars and genocides in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The actresses’ costumes (by Jenna Rose Graupmann) are designed to signify birds. They move about and comment on the central action with ethereal fluidity at times and with birdlike twitches at other times as they deliver passages of suffering and torture that move and terrify.
Philomela’s sister, Procne, was given to Tereus as a gift from her father, Athenian King Pandion. As played by Ethan Bjelland, King Tereus epitomizes the Prince Charming archetype in bearing and emanation. But when beguiled by Philomela’s eyes, Bjelland is utterly shocking as he snaps into Tereus’s sadistic side. The young king hides her away as his prisoner to torture and rape at will over time. He cuts her tongue out thinking it will ensure that she will never tell a soul of his crimes.
Suzi Gard and Jill Iverson as princesses Philomela and Procne manifest maidenly innocence and carefree vibrancy. When their illusions about men are shattered, the effect is poignantly unsettling. Dann Peterson brings a King Lear type of foolishness appropriate to father King Pandion.
Be warned that the staging contains nudity, and that the rape scene between Bjelland and Gard is quite graphic and grippingly staged by fight director Jessica Smith. The overall haunting mood of the production is evocatively served by Courtney Schmitz’s lighting and Anita Kelling’s sound design.
John Townsend writes about theater.