The Penguin Tango
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 11, 2006
Unbridled imagination and unabashed faith in the power of love combine to make Stephen Svoboda's The Penguin Tango a must-see entry in this year's FringeNYC festival. At once sweet, sassy, deeply felt, and disarmingly satirical, this delightful new comedy reminds us that it's the things we share with our fellow creatures—rather than the artificial structures, tangible or otherwise, that we erect to separate ourselves from others—that ultimately define our humanity.
Now that's an interesting theme for a play with exactly no human characters: everybody in The Penguin Tango is a bird. Eight of them are penguins, living together in a zoo and cheerfully engaging in their everyday penguin activities while "earning their living" performing shows for the humans who observe them. Cass is their de facto leader, a tough-but-sentimental entrepreneur, while his mate, Wendell, is the wise old mother hen of this extended family, acquiring knowledge of the mysterious human world by collecting discarded magazines and books from the zoo's trash pile. (Somehow Wendell and the other penguins have learned to read; Svoboda anthropomorphizes his birds most liberally, but without ever sacrificing their essential penguin-ness.)
Among the younger residents are Gomez, an alpha female with a raging biological clock; Giovanni, a buff male with a romantic streak who reads Shakespeare; Curly, a gawky bird with a molting problem; Silo, an artsy type whose big dream is to become a star at Sea World; and Royale, Silo's mate, a thoughtful fellow with a big heart. When we first meet Royale, he is nursing "Tango," a big rock that he claims is the unhatched offspring of himself and Silo. This behavior is regarded as deviance by the zookeepers, who spirit Royale away one night and inform him that he is a "suit" rather than a "dress" and that therefore he and Silo cannot have a chick together. The zookeepers then ratchet up their assault on Royale's identity by implanting a computer chip in his head that sets off an electrical charge whenever he goes near Silo. And they import a sexy Swedish penguin named Dia to "cure" him of a condition that the humans call "homosexuality."
I'm not going to disclose too much more of what transpires (the story line follows the facts, in broad outline, of the lives of several pairs of "homosexual" penguins who were in the news recently). I will say that Svoboda has added a fictitious bird to the mix, a bright pink flamingo named Phillipe who helps the penguins learn about gender roles and sexuality and who in turn learns from them about unconditional love. (Phillipe—covered in hot pink feathers and loaded with attitude—is apparently indiscriminate about whom he's willing to mate with: as Wendell dubs him, a "metrosexual.")
Of course, labels turn out to be utterly beside the point: penguins are penguins, and that's all they ever can be; and though their human zookeepers misunderstand what that means for penguins and people, Svoboda's beautiful play does not. Is it too much to hope that a benign understanding and amused respect for our fellows can somehow govern our lives? The Penguin Tango's view of the world seems as optimistically cockeyed as it's possible to be, but it sure is nice to think about.
The production, directed by Svoboda, is sublime: Michiko Kitayama & Tim Brown's set is simple, imaginative, and eminently stageworthy, while Kitayama's costumes—playful riffs on penguin-ness translated to human fashion—are witty and delightful. The entire cast all deserve praise: John Bixler as the tormented Royale, Brandan Maroney as the dreamy Silo, Anna Becker as domineering Gomez, Steve Hayes as tender-hearted Wendell, Lowell Williams as crusty Cass, Chris Teutsch as romantic Giovanni, and Eli Sands as hapless Curly. Threatening to steal the show are Christian Mansfield's fabulous flamingo Phillipe and, especially, Andrea Pettigrove's improbable penguin siren Dia.
I hope that The Penguin Tango has a long, rich life after this splendid world premiere at FringeNYC.