There is nothing pleasant about watching a rape scene, but “If We Were Birds” is not something you should go to if you’re looking for pleasant. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for truth, expression and power in stories and scenes that won’t leave you for days, the Connecticut Repertory Theater’s production, made in partnership with the University of Connecticut Human Rights Department, has it all.
“If We Were Birds” is based on an ancient Greek myth in which Procne’s marriage to Tereus separates her from her sister Philomela. When Procne begs to be reunited with her sister, Tereus travels to collect her. However, instead of bringing Philomela to his home, he takes her to his cabin in the woods, where he proceeds to rape her and cut out her tongue. This story is interspersed with the narratives of slave women, who share stories of warfare and rape, all based on real genocides of the twentieth century.
None of this was fun to watch. The play is very graphic. The rape and abuse depicted on stage is insanely uncomfortable and unsettling to remember hours later. Every time you think they’ll pull the curtain and leave something up to the imagination, you’re wrong. While this level of depiction may seem unnecessary, the most important theme of the play is about giving a voice to victims. No, it’s not comfortable to watch, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to talk about. Victims deserve a place to share their trauma, a space to be angry.
With conversations we see today surrounding rape and sexual assault, like the #MeToo movement, it is clear things change when people talk about them. This is directly mirrored in the play. Tereus may cut out Philomela’s tongue (another brutishly disgusting scene) to keep her silent, but she turns to other means to let her sister know what was done to her. As soon as Philomela shares the story, she and Procne can take action.
Not everything in the play is this straightforward, however. Five other stories of rape are shared, and those victims get none of the revenge that Philomela enjoys. Furthermore, the story is not a cut-and-dry tale of empowerment in which women support women and men are clearly depicted as devils. The slave women blame Philomela for letting her sister go with Tereus. Philomela blames the slave women for being raped. Procne, for a while, loves Tereus. Tereus blames his actions on “his blood.” A group of women ironically worships Hymen, the goddess of marriage. Besides just the central theme of giving a voice to the voiceless, every single one of these scenes introduces some new question about anger, power, shame, revenge, blame, misogyny and sexuality.
The conclusion also plays into this noncommittal conversation. Instead of clearly painting Philomela and Procne as heroes and Tereus as a villain, instead of showing how somebody can move on from committing something terrible, or having something terrible committed against them, they are all three transformed into birds. The play interprets this as a kind of salvationary torture, but that’s not the only way to read this ending. This inconclusive wrap-up gives audiences more opportunities in their conversations.
The messaging of the play was very well done and important, but there were a few shaky aspects of the performance. In the opening scene, Philomela, as a bird, prefaces the performance with a kind of spoken-word demand for her story to be heard. This seemed a little disconnected from the rest of the performance. As the play progressed the acting became more natural, but it seemed as though the initial chronological break was difficult for the actors to completely transition between. Furthermore, while some humor seemed appropriate at the beginning of the play to emphasize the childish innocence of characters, by the end humor seemed out of place and distasteful when sandwiched between scenes of violence and abuse.
While no performance can ever be perfect, “If We Were Birds” definitely accomplished what it set out to do. At the introduction of the play, there was a reference made to Greek theater, a relevant connection given the origin of the story. In ancient Greece, performances were widely attended and served as a “community conversation.” This play did just that, presenting a conversation with every line, scene and artistic decision, and sparking many more conversations as audience members were leaving.
“If We Were Birds” may not be something I’d ever want to see again, but CRT’s performance gave a voice to victims, and gave me a new look at an important conversation. Great art changes the way you look at the world, and I haven’t been able to look at birds the same way since.
Alex Houdeshell is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.