Birds of East Africa at The Kitchen Theatre
Ithaca is home to Kitchen Theatre Company, a small, professional group that performs year round with new works, old gems, and premiers. Every season waves of talent roll through the theater to the delight of the always full house.
The Kitchen Theatre opened the world premier of “Birds of East Africa” by veteran playwright Wendy Dann, directed by collaborator and Kitchen Theater’s artistic director Rachel Lampert on February 2nd. This new work explores the topic of love and loss in a creative way, interweaving and integrating three themes – the loss of a loved one by death, love lost in a relationship, and the allegorical, mutually beneficial relationship between the hornbill and the dwarf mongoose. This layering gives the play depth and reflects the complicated nature of emotional lives of individuals as well as life in general.
Marion, played by Lena Kaminsky, is a recently widowed ornithologist who has just written and published a book on the birds of east Africa. She has traveled much to observe birds in nature, and since the death of her husband has led a nomadic life after selling the family house. She has a pact with an old best friend, Stephen, played by Daniel Pettrow, stating that if ever one of them should find themselves in need of a place to live the other would take them in. The emotionally bereft Marion finds herself in the position of utilizing this pact and shows up in Las Vegas at dancer friend Stephen’s door. Stephen is married to Nick, played by Gabriel Marin, who is afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis, which is taking its toll on their now strained relationship.
The play travels back and forth in time, showing different stages of Stephen and Nicks relationship, from falling in love to decay as well as Marion’s transitions after her husband’s death. Dann compares the different types of loss – that from death, to the demise of a relationship and how while different, both taking their emotional toll – loss by a sudden death, where the rug is pulled out from under you, to the slow, implacable march to death by a degenerative disease and its effect on a relationship.
The play opens with a dance performed by Jeremiah Porter and Jeremy Swift, choreographed by Tucker Davis. The two dancers are costumed in richly multi-colored, flowing silks and head-dress that suggest tropical birds. This opener is delicious eye candy, beautifully danced while integrating jerky, birdlike head movements. Porter and Swift reappear throughout the play as birds, as well as portray lab assistants, an airline passenger and a ticket agent, characters that Marion encounters on her travels and in work life. Her interactions with these characters portends later events.
One last character is Daniel, introduced late in the action and played by Jacob Goodhart. Daniel is the son of Marion’s deceased husband from a previous marriage. Marion came into Daniel’s life as he was already entering college, so never had a chance to develop a close relationship with him. Due to their mutual loss, they have a reason to connect, and Daniel is invited by Marion to visit at Stephen and Nick’s only to arrive awkwardly in the middle of a fight. The good natured Daniel tries his best to bring lightness to the room, but the bad feelings that have permeated the three cannot be quelled. There was good drama with the question of whether Daniel would show up or not, giving his ill-timed entrance even more impact.
Marion tells of the mutually beneficial relationship between the mongoose and hornbill which serves as a metaphor for the relationships between Marion and Stephen, Stephen and Nick, and Marion and Daniel, and in the end love prevails. This is helped by the appearance of an actual, live hornbill that fills the stage with love. A nice touch. The bird’s acting was spot on!
All of the acting was of high caliber. Pettrow and Marin each played their well defined roles quite believably, each descending to the appropriate emotional depths required of their characters – Pettrow’s Stephen as the suitably overly dramatic dancer, and Marin’s Nick as the reserved, serious, suffering businessman. Kaminsky’s Marion character is much more open to interpretation, thus more complex. Kaminsky played her somewhat nerdy, emotionally pent up. Marion has been set adrift and is introspective, not quite knowing how to handle her grief. Ultimately her connecting with Daniel is healing. Kaminsky conveyed all this well. Goodhart’s Daniel was just right both physically and temperamentally.
To me there were two acting styles here – the vérité as employed by the men, and a more theatrical style seen in Kaminsky’s performance. These two styles didn’t combine as smoothly as I would have liked, but it’s a fairly minor, yet noticeable aspect.
Both the writing and direction were very effective. The script had a nice balance of drama and humor, and the pace was good. The transitions between time periods were well written and executed. The play is performed in one 90 minute act. There were no slow moments – it kept moving. I actually could have had more. But there were just enough scenes between the various main characters to show their conflicts and the different sides of each’s internal struggles without beleaguering them. It would be possible though to flesh this out more.
Both lighting and sound were effective and well executed. Upon entering the 99 seat theater a mood was created by the subtle background sound of nature, the stage set with one large, central, multi-tiered round platform. At the rear of the stage was a large scrim awash in warm color that changed subtly throughout the show. In a stationary spot off center and near the top of the scrim was a horizontal rectangle used to project text to help define time and place. All lighting was rich and warm, while changes were very smooth. Realistic sound effects were expertly timed. Transitional music between scenes was a bit tv-like, but worked well.
This show was a very satisfying theatrical experience – well written, directed, and acted. The balance between heavy and light was just right, never going too deeply in one direction or the other. Birds of East Africa should enjoy success.
Playing at The Kitchen Theatre Company thru February 12.
For tickets and info call 607-272-0570, or visit their website: www.kitchentheatre.org
Street Address: 417 State/MLK Jr. St. Ithaca, NY 14580