The Penguin Tango (A Review)

Why are we so fascinated by penguins? They all look alike (to us), dress well, and seem happy to bobble along across a frozen landscape as part of a more or less orderly society. Okay, so their habits bear a passing resemblance to ours — except for the orderly society part. “The Penguin Tango” the current Redhouse, in Syracuse NY exploits the similarities between us and them to delightful effect.

Inspired by the reports of bonded male penguin couples as observed in zoos around the world, Redhouse Executive Artistic Director Stephen Svoboda has used the stories of real-life penguin partners to create “The Penguin Tango,” which premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2006. He transfers all their stories to the Bremerhaven Zoo in Germany, where a few years back actual attempts to break up gay penguin couples to foster breeding resulted in vociferous protests from LGBT advocacy groups.

Happily, “The Penguin Tango” keeps the social engineering humans out of the picture so we can concentrate on the birds themselves, here portrayed as classic clown types. The focus is on happy partners Royale and Silo. Royale broods over a rock which he imagines is his egg, which he calls Tango. Silo humors him and practices his juggling act, hoping to be discovered by Seaworld. The trouble begins with the zoo’s attempts to mate Royale with a breeding female. They change his name to Roy and engage in an especially cruel (and hilarious) type of aversion therapy.

When the group figures out the gender differences between humans, whom they call suits and dresses, the next step is to understand what the word ‘homosexual’ means to those creatures on the other side of the fence. Roy’s forced epiphany has caused such chaos in the penguin exhibit that his friends stage an intervention.

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“The Penguin Tango” really flies (unlike penguins. They don’t.) when the clowns are waddle-racing about the enclosure freaked out by the way their ordered gay lifestyle has been thrown into chaos. The cast is impeccable (sorry), and Svoboda gives them great bits to play with. Steve Hayes plays Wendell, the flamboyant penguin house master of ceremonies, who preens for the zoo’s visitors and attempts undercover work in a trench coat and fedora. As Cass, Wendell’s entrepreneurial partner, Jason Timothy shows the bearing and befuddlement of a classic clown with a touch of Beckett about him. John Bixler carries most of the thematic weight as the confused and often sadsack Roy. Adam Perabo is his partner Silo, who has the soul of an entertainer, but the skills of a penguin.

The featherless doofus Curly (Chris Coffey), alternately slack-jawed or illuminated by an idiot grin, vibrates with joy, discovery, or just for the heck of it. The ungainly but ready-to-mate female Gomez (Brittany Melendez) reads Cosmo to figure out how to get and keep her bird. Her target, lothario Giovanni (Jonathan Wells), struts about offering advice and snippets of poetry. Swedish temptress Dia (Laura Austin), looking like Heidi gone bad, tries every trick in the book to heat things up with Roy. Chad Tallon is marvelous as a “fishitarian” gay polar bear.

Svoboda directs his loose-limbed cast to work at a breakneck pace. If you miss one joke, another is very close behind. Tim Brown’s stage design suggests both a zoo enclosure and the door-slamming setting for classic farce. The costumes by Nikki Dehomme, imaginative variations on penguins’ famous formalwear are terrific and in some cases one might say fabulous.

For all the glorious clowning, the sometimes preachy “The Penguin Tango” goes on a bit too long. There’s a spectacular slightly shorter play nesting somewhere in the already funny but overstuffed two and a half hour show.


The Details:
What: “The Penguin Tango” at the Redhouse.
Where: Redhouse Arts Center, 201 S. West Street, Syracuse.
When seen: October 24
Length: Two and a half hours with intermission.
Attendance: approximately 95 (near capacity)
Family Guide: good for mature teens. Younger kids might enjoy the clowning but need explanations.
Runs to: November 1
Information: (315) 362-2785, theredhouse.org.

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