The Kitchen Theatre’s premiere of Birds of East Africa, a new play written by Wendy Dann and directed by Rachel Lampert, is incredibly quirky and starts out slow but becomes more meaningful as it progresses. The play feels disjointed at times but is saved by strong acting and its realistic portrayal of damaged relationships.
As the play begins, two men dressed in colorful clothing meant to look like birds dance around the stage, and an ornithologist named Marion (Lena Kaminsky) appears soon after. The dancers often perform between scenes and sometimes interact with Marion. The birds she has studied have a constant presence in her life, even when she moves in with a college friend Stephen (Daniel Pettrow) and his husband Nick (Gabriel Marin) in Las Vegas, far from any hornbills, her professed favorite species. While her friendship with Stephen is still sweet and youthful, none of the three in the household are emotionally stable or satisfied. Marion has nowhere to stay after the recent death of her husband, while Nick and Stephen’s marriage has become strained since Nick’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. The two have ceased to communicate and show any kind of affection towards each other. Marion, too, is struggling to reconnect with her college-aged stepson Daniel (Jacob Goodhart) and to find a way to discuss their shared grief despite having only briefly lived in the same house. Over time, Marion and Daniel grow closer while Nick and Stephen work on their marriage. The portrayal of these realistically small but significant steps towards repairing these relationships is where the play is most credible.
While the use of dancers in a play is very unconventional, Swift and Porter’s dancing is excellent and manages to fit into the plot. It seems at first that they simply serve to remind the audience of the role that birds have played in Marion’s life, but it later becomes clear that they reflect the symbiotic relationships Marion has observed between birds and other animals as well as the relationships in her own life. Like Nick and Stephen, the birds spend their time dancing around each other at first but come back together towards the end of the play.
Many aspects are based on playwright Wendy Dann’s own life: fear that her older husband will die before her, a close friend who has promised to take her in like Stephen does if it is ever necessary and a trip to Tanzania where she loved the birds. This may be why the play does not always feel that it’s going in a specific direction and some aspects are so personal that it can be hard for the audience to connect with, but as the play aims to accurately reflect life and emphasizes reflection on seemingly ordinary moments, this is justified. However, Marion’s bizarre recurring airport dreams are largely unnecessary and unexplained, simply adding to the confusion.
The production is very unique and unusual and starts out rather dull, but hits its stride when it begins to discuss real, emotional topics. It is clear throughout the play that Marion is in an emotionally vulnerable state, but the deepest feelings discussed in the play are only hinted at until at least halfway through the play. Marion, Nick, and Stephen’s reluctance to discuss the issues closest to their hearts is realistic and makes them more relatable, but the way they dance around these subjects with awkward attempts at jokes and “remember when”s causes the beginning of the play to drag out.
It is understandable that Marion is rather spacey and flighty, but as so much of her life revolves around birds that she is hard to relate to for anyone who is not an ornithologist. For the first half of the play, Stephen is treated as nothing more than the stereotypical gay best friend rather than a real person. He becomes a bit more three-dimensional when the problems in his marriage come to light, and Pettrow’s acting is much more impressive here. Nick (Gabriel Marin) is by far the most credible character, attempting to be pleasant but emotionally shutting down after his diagnosis, and Marin’s portrayal of this character feels the most true to life. Marion’s stepson Daniel offers comic relief to these deep discussions and his lightheartedness feels much more real than Marion and Stephen’s attempts at humor.
This play is very unusual and takes some time to get into, but drastically improves once the characters are given time to develop and their issues are more deeply discussed. Unfortunately the corny dialogue and contrived moments towards the beginning truly hamper the otherwise strong cast and it does not become clear that they are talented actors until the play becomes more serious.
Birds of East Africa will be performed at the Kitchen Theatre through February 12th.
Emily Fournier is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.