Calder Hudson reviews Birds at Dawn (written and directed by Lauren Hepburn), which went up through the On the Rocks Festival on 6th April in the Barron Theatre. 


birds at dawn


The On the Rocks’ production of Birds at Dawn culminated well, but—perhaps appropriately, given the play’s content—a bit anticlimactically. Lauren Hepburn, who both wrote and directed the play, managed to rally together a strong team of actors and techs to create an admirable end product. Though it felt threadbare at moments, the considerable chemistry between the play’s two actors managed to carry the show past its minor setbacks.

Birds at Dawn is described by its promotional material as ‘a journey through one claustrophobic night, in which a couple work through their past and present to find their future’; this is at least partially true. The married couple at the heart of the show, Amanda and Max (played by Edie Deffebach and Tom Giles, respectively), worked well together through the range of sensations the show demanded of them, from distraught silence to passionate proximity. The cunning use of lighting, sound, and film – which were absolutely seamless in their conjunction– proved to be one of the play’s strongest attributes. It’s important to stress just how noninvasive these technical boons were in their presentation; while they did not distract at all from Deffebach and Giles’ performance, they excellently amplified the ambience of Hepburn’s piece. From a purely mechanical standpoint, Hepburn’s actors also deserve laudation for their excellent enunciation and articulation throughout the play. Though a good third of the dialogue was literal pillow talk, Deffebach and Giles were never hard to hear, even at the back of the theatre.

The play’s set was a tug-of-war between positive and negative qualities. Though it was well organized from a visual standpoint, this order did not capitulate upon the sense of claustrophobia thematically central to the play. The actors clearly felt comfortable in the space, but while they were verbally working to establish a cramped atmosphere, the neatly arranged set worked against them. Even the setup of the audience echoed the theme of claustrophobia; Birds at Dawn was performed in a three-quarter-thrust designed to envelop and confine the action of the play itself. However, for all the set pieces present on the stage, the actors still had enough space to work and the play did not feel overcrowded like it was meant to.

Tightening the set’s edges just a bit more would have helped in this regard, if only to force Deffebach and Giles to do more obvious maneuvering to get around the cluttered furniture. The play’s blocking made repeated use of characters moving to the nightstand for a drink; considering the amount of space and furniture onstage, it seemed artificial that this one movement monopolized so much action. With that said, however, a great deal of tactical thought clearly went into Birds at Dawn’s presentation and setting; this issue of space-on-set was an unfortunate footnote to a series of good choices, like the three-quarter-thrust staging. The play’s second-largest problem—the rather overt exposition throughout much of its midsection—may have been, unfortunately, unavoidable for any show of its content and length. This dialogue potentially could have been worked into the script more organically, but perhaps it was a necessary evil. One way or another, Deffebach and Giles were able to handle it well enough to keep it from destroying Birds at Dawn’s fittingly invasive style of immersion.

Looking at these faults objectively shows them to be aggrandized footnotes; criticizing the excess of space onstage cannot be done without drawing attention to the otherwise effective set and staging, and criticizing unabashed exposition only serves to show how Deffebach and Giles seamlessly worked past it (no doubt with good direction from Hepburn herself). At the end of the day, Birds at Dawn was an achievement—a solid display of inspired ingenuity.



Calder Hudson

Photo credit: Ilinca Vanau and Livia Marinescu