Arts & Entertainment, Theatre

Yvette Nolan’s ‘The Birds’ places indigeneity in the spotlight

Yvette Nolan’s adaptation of Aristophanes’s classic Greek comedy The Birds, which ran Nov. 21-23 and 28-30 at Moyse Hall Theatre, focuses on the history of colonization, and the future of truth and reconciliation for indigenous peoples in Canada. Produced as a part of the English department’s Drama & Theatre Program, The Birds features student actors and crew members who tell the story of Jack (Luke Horton, U3 Arts) and Gulliver (Arielle Shiri, U3 Arts) as they leave their city lives behind to seek a new life in a land inhabited by talking birds.

While the pair originally sought to flee the hustle and bustle of city life, Jack quickly proves unwilling to leave his old profiteering ways behind. Working with man-turned-bird Hoopoe (Alexander Czedledy-Nagy, U3 Management), he pays off a leader in the bird community, Raven (Caroline Portante, U3 Arts), to profit off the land and build a new city modelled after the one he left behind. His plans inadvertently bring a host of other invaders from the city—bureaucrats, missionaries, and the like—who give no credence to the birds’ concerns and work to exploit their society.

Nolan artfully weaves the plot together by making each character’s personality traits and actions double as a commentary on contemporary indigenous-settler relations. Jack serves as a prototypical colonizer, only showing surface-level concern for the birds when he loses control of his dream city’s development or when his own life is at stake. Nightingale (Grace Bokenfohr, U2 Music) Hoopoe’s wife, acts as a storyteller who sings of the creation of Turtle Island. She integrates the Greek tragedy of Philomela, the story of a princess who transforms into a nightingale after her brother-in-law mutilates her, to construct a broader narrative about colonial violence.

Recently invited to join the Mordechai Richler Writer-in-Residence program, Nolan has been writing since 1990. Her first production Blade premiered at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. Born in Saskatchewan and raised in Winnipeg, Nolan was the managing artistic director of the Toronto based company Native Earth Performing Arts. The Mordechai Richler program aims to offer emerging artists valuable experience and guidance writing for different media, such as television, film and radio.

Where dialogue is sparse, the actors’ body language fills in the gaps to further flesh out the relationships that unfold onstage. Inès Vieux Francoeur (U2 Arts) is particularly strong in her portrayal of Hoopoe’s assistant, Sandpiper –she aggressively pokes her beak out at Jack and Gulliver during their tense first encounter, and gracefully fluffs her feathers during calmer moments. The birds’ chief authority figure, Eagle (Yves Abanda, U3 Science) projects a similarly-strong stage presence by extending his enormous wings to silence the crowd in various scenes. His posture throughout the performance solidifies his role as a powerful and decisive leader in the decolonization process.

The Birds is an entertaining and intellectually-engaging adaptation of the classical Greek comedy. Vibrant and colourful costumes, coupled with well-designed forest props, add a sense of realism in what would otherwise be a purely fantastical world. Each performer and crew member played their roles exceptionally, showcasing the dedication that went into the work. At the end of the performance, the audience left the theatre pondering the nature of reconciliation in the present day.

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