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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Theatre review: The Birds is an inspired modern adaptation

Aristophanes would approve.

If Aristophanes were alive today, he’d be thrilled by UBC’s adapted production of his play The Birds, first produced in 414 BC at a Greek theatre festival.

The classicist’s original plot follows two old Athenians who quit their country, Attica, with its litigious wrangling and sycophancy, in search of a place free from strife and hypocrisy.

They are guided in their quest by a hoopoe (a pink Eurasian bird), a raven and a jackdaw. Birds from across the skies are summoned to hear and contribute to their plan to build a new ‘Cloud-cuckoo-land.’ The birds agree to persuade the Greek gods to accept their terms. Despite harebrained schemes by quacks and charlatans from the world left behind, a new Utopia is created. Everyone lives happily ever after, with a wedding between the hoopoe and the handmaid of Zeus.

Neither modern-day adapter Yvette Nolan nor director Michelle Olson saw Aristophanes’s play in this whimsical light. Instead, they drew analogies between Greece and Canada, when indigenous birds once walked and flew alongside humans and could speak both languages and take on both forms.

Gulliver and Jack (aka the two Athenians in the original play), superbly depicted by Simon Auclair-Troughton and Christian Billet, respectively, seek new horizons. They, too, are led by Hoopoe and Raven. Gulliver eventually sees the light that Utopia means harmony with nature and the birds, so he transforms into a loon. At the same time, Jack discards his phony peacock feathers and returns to his mundane previous life.

Most poignantly, Nightingale’s sister castigates the hoopoe for taking her sister (aka Zeus’s handmaid) by force, and he is banished. Both nightingale sisters are played consummately by Rachel Angco, while Nico Pante plays the bad guy/bird with a charm that endears him despite his failings.

Members of the cast of Yvette Nolan's adaptation of Aristophanes's The Birds. Photo by Javier Sotres.
Members of the cast of Yvette Nolan’s adaptation of Aristophanes’s The Birds. Photo by Javier Sotres.

Women play the entire bird council in a Greek/Canadian chorus under the direction of composer and choral director Russell Wallace from the St’at’imc (Salish) Nation. Their feast of music transcends beauty with its moving close harmonies and rich blend of voices interspersed with bird calls. The individual movements of the birds under Olson’s sensitive choreography, with each actor aware of their own space while leaving room for others to weave through and round, becomes an original form of ballet.

The birds interacted seamlessly, but some performances earned special mention. Most notable is Angco, whose voice is as versatile and pure as the nightingale she portrays and, later, as passionate as that same Nightingale’s sister. Another was Talia Peck, whose heron became the essence of focus and grace, with a beak portrayed as an extension of her hand while she sang a harmony line as clear as Waterford crystal. Julia Eckert’s yellow warbler also delighted with expressive bird shadow movements, and Sera Jorgensen encapsulated the several sides of Raven from trickster to interrogator.

Other highlights include the Indigenous legend of Turtle Mountain and how the earth was formed. A 1920s hoot-‘n’-holler was also woven into the tapestry of tales and turns. The entire cast and crew worked cohesively under Olson’s leadership in the spirit of her Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in heritage.

Expressive though minimalist costumes by Sophie Fougere and ephemeral natural sets by Anjali Mandapaka, with non-intrusive lighting and sound, completed an inspiring evening that sped non-stop through 90 minutes, leaving the audience as thrilled as Aristophanes would have been.

Update (21 March): UBC Theatre and Film advise that The Birds are now sold out.

UBC Theatre and Film presents The Birds until March 25 at the University of BC’s Dorothy Somerset Studio (6361 University Blvd, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2). Visit for tickets and information.

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