Kitchen Theatre’s ‘Birds of East Africa’ tackles tough emotions

By Sue Henninger
Tompkins Weekly

Birds of East Africa, by Wendy Dann
On stage at the Kitchen Theatre, through February 12; all (607) 272-0570 or visit www.kitchentheatre.org

Birds of East Africa, expertly directed by KTC’s artistic director, Rachel Lampert, has a minimalist plot, relying more on the nuances of the relationships between the characters and the ever-present birds.

Photo by Dave Burbank
Lena Kaminsky, left, and Jeremiah Porter in “Birds of East Africa,” by Wendy Dann.

When Marion’s (Lena Kaminsky) husband, Jack, dies unexpectedly she finds herself adrift. Her old college friend Stephen, played by Daniel Pettrow, offers her a home with him and his husband, Nick (Gabriel Marin) in Las Vegas, conveniently neglecting to tell her that Nick’s chronic illness has pushed their marital relationship to the breaking point. Stephen and Marion immediately find temporary solace in drinking and reminiscing about the “good old days” when things were so much less complicated.

The situation rapidly deteriorates, with each character floundering in their private misery about the circumstances they find themselves in (poor health, relationship going sour, and death of a spouse). The three are stunned out of their wretchedness, brought on by a game of charades, when Jack’s son Daniel (Jacob Goodhart) arrives at Nick’s birthday dinner. As Daniel bounds about the stage, as energetic and enthusiastic as a puppy, it becomes obvious that he is ready to batter down the older character’s defenses with his raw needs and emotions, whether they want him to or not.
Marion is an ornithologist and clearly finds birds easier to relate to than people. She often seems to rely on bird behavior to show her how she could improve her human relationships, if she chooses to. She is especially drawn to the healthy symbiotic relationship between the Hornbill and the Dwarf Mongoose. These two vastly different species still manage to mutually benefit each other and thrive, comparable to the relationship she and Stephen (also opposites in many ways) shared in college. The play concludes with the arrival of a surprise guest and the hope that, thanks to the Hornbill’s positive example, Nick and Stephen, along with Marion and Daniel, will be able to find ways to support each other through their crises, rather than continuing to isolate themselves.

Photo by Dave Burbank
Daniel Pettrow, left, and Gabriel Marin in “Birds of East Africa,” by Wendy Dann.

KTC’s creative team has done a fantastic job with Birds of East Africa. Jeremiah Porter and Jeremy Swift are stunning as the two birds. Costume designer Lisa Boquist has clad them in vibrant colors and gauzy flowing garments, suggesting continuous movement and a zest for life. Choreographer Tucker Davis brings the two birds to life with a carefully considered and captivating combination of engaging and interactive dance moves, paired with highly realistic, abrupt birdlike movements and mannerisms. The birds’ joyful dances are frequently accompanied by rhythmic African music (Grant Carey, Sound Design) adding yet another level of sensory delight for the audience. Cleverly, the birds are also used to rearrange the set, their swooping and flitting about a welcome change from stagehands in black! Steve TenEyck’s subtle lighting is reminiscent of the peaceful beauty of golden sun gently filtering through tree branches.
In contrast, Marion, Nick, and Stephen are drab in dress and their stiff movements and often constricted speech (or silences) seem to indicate that each is caught up in their own self-imposed bubble of misery and loss. The three characters aren’t always particularly likable or accessible. That’s life. Not everyone wants to talk about their emotions and process their feelings when they find themselves at a crossroads or turning point.
Birds of East Africa falls more under the rubric of art than entertainment and it may not be for everyone. The play overflows with literary devices and incorporates several dream sequences (characters played by Porter and Swift) along with frequently shifting time periods-indicated by a cue card on the upper left of the stage-which can be confusing and distracting. Theatergoers might need to mentally exert themselves to tease out what they want to come away with once the actors have taken their final bows.
As the post-show talkback indicated, what audience members think and feel after the play may not be what the playwright intended or was hoping for. But, isn’t that what art is all about? Performances frequently have different meanings to different people and hearing what others have to say is always enlightening. What I personally came away with is that humans have a lot to learn from nature. To live the most fulfilling and luminous life possible, one needs to be willing to be vulnerable and reach out, trusting that the benefits of a relationship will far outweigh the risk of being hurt by others. And that’s good enough for me!
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Birds of East Africa will have a free, pre-show talk at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 8, with Dr. John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Cornell University professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.